By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, kgosselin@courant.com The Hartford Courant

5:37 p.m. EDT, June 9, 2012

After seven years of slowing house sales in Connecticut, this year is off to a pretty appetizing start — at least when it comes to the total number of closings.

House sales rose in each of the first four months of the year, compared with a year ago, capped off by a rousing, 25 percent increase in April. There hasn't been a streak like that since early 2004.

But prices — falling for more than a year now after an uptick in 2010 — appear to be still on the decline in most cities and towns.

After that small improvement in 2010, and a false start last year, this was the spring when hopes were high for the long-suffering housing market. An analysis by The Courant of town-by-town data for the first four months of the year, however, shows that the recovery remains spotty and elusive — strong in some places, weak in others, with no clear pattern emerging.

By the numbers, experts are wary about declaring the market to be in a true recovery, with Greater Hartford and other areas of the state still considered to be firmly in a buyer's market. In Greater Hartford, for example, there were 10 months' worth of houses on the market in April, well above the six months of inventory that is considered to favor neither a buyer nor a seller.

"The bounce in sales isn't yet something to celebrate," Ronald F. Van Winkle, an economist and town manager of West Hartford, said. "It isn't awful. We're bouncing along at the bottom. If you sift through the data, there is a modicum of 'This is better.' But there are no clear trends in the data that we're on the upswing."

In Avon, for example, former Connecticut Light & Power Co. President Jeffrey Butler sold his home last month for $1.56 million, just below the asking price of $1.6 million. It was on the market just four months, a relatively short time for a million-dollar-plus home.

One agent in the Farmington Valley says the Avon market has some "softness" in the $700,000-plus price range, but is stabilizing. "The bottom isn't dropping out of the market," Rob Giuffria, president of Prudential Premier Homes in Farmington, said.

Yet the median sale price for a single-family house in the town fell 26 percent, as measured by the 47 sales in January through April of this year, compared with the same four months in 2011.

The median sale price — the point where half the sales are above, half below — is a well-watched indicator of price trends, and it helps to tell what kinds of houses are selling, but it's hardly definitive. Towns with low sale volumes can see their median sale price swing wildly if, for example, houses that were less expensive to begin with sell in larger numbers, or vice versa.

In eastern Connecticut, the town of Ashford's median sale price soared nearly 54 percent, to $200,000, but that was based on just nine sales in four months.

In places like Avon, with dozens of sales, the declining median at the least paints a muddy picture. The picture can be further complicated by foreclosure and short sales that can push down the median, but bear little resemblance to the value of houses in neighborhoods elsewhere in the same municipality.

In central Connecticut, Bristol saw its median sale price jump 9.3 percent, to $170,000, in four months in which there were a total of 97 sales, challenging the notion that towns and cities with less-affluent demographics will lag in the recovery.

Overall, the data from all 169 Connecticut cities and towns from The Warren Group, which tracks housing trends in New England, do not yet point clearly to a robust recovery.

Sales certainly are on the rise. Through the first four months of this year, statewide sales of single-family houses rose nearly 11 percent, to 6,104, from 5,500 for the same period a year ago. That is still well below the nearly 9,800 sales for the first four months of 2006 when the state's housing market was already in the second year of a slowdown.

But even the sales gains are not consistent. Ninety-four towns and cities showed sales gains through April compared with a year ago. Across the state's eight counties, Tolland County had the largest percentage of municipalities with rising sales, at 69 percent, followed closely by Hartford County with 68 percent. Windham County was at the bottom, with 40 percent of towns showing an increase in the number of sales.

Recession-weary real estate agents are cheering the uptick in sales, but some experts wonder if it isn't the result of a mild winter. More home buyers were out in the winter months, especially compared with the previous year, which was marked by heavy snowfall and worries about roof collapses. That juiced up sales weeks earlier than the traditional home buying seasons, roughly stretching April through June.

"There was more activity than you'd expect to see," Steven P. Lanza, editor of The Connecticut Economy, the University of Connecticut's economic publication, said. "There is a possibility that we are borrowing sales from later in the year."

Lanza said he believes the big surge in the first four months of the year is more than that, however, especially considering that houses under contract continued to rise in April — a sign that stronger activity will extend into the summer.

"Seasonal factors alone don't explain that," Lanza said.

Seeing The Pluses

There are reasons to rein in optimism, especially considering false starts in each of the past two years in which sales started out strong. In 2010, the federal homebuyer tax credit boosted sales but didn't have staying power.

Certainly there are more pluses now, including record-low mortgage rates and lower asking prices. But employment growth in Connecticut and nationally hit an unsettling bump in May. And despite low mortgage rates, it still isn't easy to get a mortgage, with deals for an estimated 30 percent of homes under contract falling through, according to Prudential Connecticut Realty.

Bruzik, a jet engine mechanic at Pratt & Whitney, said the couple has been watching the market seriously for well over a year and saving for a down payment. They've also been tracking mortgage rates, which remain at or near record lows, and they consider the asking prices reasonable.

"We've been looking since September, and we're constantly on the Internet," Bruzik said. "When something goes on the market, we set up an appointment. Ideally, I would like to do something this summer."

But the couple is waiting for the right house in their price range, roughly $300,000 to $350,000, in a house up to 2,500 square feet.

Bruzik said he isn't worried about selling his current home because he will most likely rent it out, adding to two other investment properties he and his wife, a liquor store manager, already own.

"Ideally, I would like to do something this summer," Bruzik said.

'A Weird Time'

In a typical housing recovery, sales pick up first and are followed by rising prices.

Through the first four months of 2012, according to The Warren Group, the statewide median sale price fell nearly 6 percent, to $220,000, from $233,000 for the same period in 2011. For all of 2011, the median price fell just under 3 percent.

Through April, The Warren Group's data show that 107 towns and cities showed a decrease in median sale prices — though many have small samples, making the numbers unreliable.

The state's large cities generally showed median price increases. In Waterbury — the municipality with the most single-family house sales, at 198 — the median price rose 4.2 percent, to $93,750. In Meriden, the median rose 6.7 percent, to $143,000. Bridgeport's median price rose 16.3 percent, to $131,375.

While the data suggest that towns and cities with lower medians, $250,000 and below, did better, that was not true across the board. East Hartford, with 116 house sales, saw its median price tumble 8.3 percent, to $129,700. Neighboring Manchester also saw a decrease, down 4.7 percent, on 111 sales.

The median sale price is still falling in the majority of towns and cities in each of the state's eight counties. Tolland County, which saw the most sales, also had the highest percentage of towns — 73 percent — with falling median sale prices. New London County fared the best, with only 48 percent of its municipalities showing falling medians. In Hartford County, 69 percent of towns and cities saw the median sale price slip.

It seems clear that sellers of houses in poor shape are seeing the biggest declines.

Two years ago, Donna Czaja and her husband, Matthew, put her late parents' 1880s farmhouse in Higganum up for sale, and drew an offer of $175,000 that eventually fell through. The couple — he does home repair, she cleans houses — rented out the home where Donna Czaja grew up.

The Czajas, who rent in Middletown and have a cottage in Vermont, put the house on the market three weeks ago with an asking price of $139,000.

"Honestly, I think we will be waiting awhile," Donna Czaja said. "It's a fixer-upper. It's a more narrow market for people to get financing."

There can be multiple bids on homes with the most modern updates in the best locations, agents say.

Curt Clemens Sr., owner of Century 21 Clemens & Sons in Rocky Hill, said the housing market in the Hartford area is showing nascent signs of recovery. "It's getting healthy but I don't expect it to be a boom," Clemens said.

A recent report from Prudential Connecticut Realty said median price declines may continue for the next couple of quarters, but there could be an upturn late in the year.

Clemens said he believes the median is being pushed down dramatically in some towns and cities by higher than typical foreclosure activity — 12 percent of all sales in Connecticut, according to a May 31 report by RealtyTrac.

"It's a weird time, right now," he said.