Where are the sellers? That's what homebuyers and their real-estate agents were asking last month as the number of properties for sale in...

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Where are the sellers?

That’s what homebuyers and their real-estate agents were asking last month as the number of properties for sale in central Puget Sound counties plunged.

According to May statistics released yesterday by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, the number of available King County houses and condominiums was off by 31 percent compared with a year ago.

Snohomish County listings were down 23 percent. Pierce County saw a 4 percent decline in inventory.

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Completed sales, which mostly reflect transactions inked in March or April, rose 5 percent or less in King, Snohomish and Kitsap counties compared with the same month last year. In Pierce, where there is more new construction, closed sales climbed more than 14 percent.

The region’s shrinking number of homes for sale shifted the law of supply and demand into high gear: Prices were up 12 percent or more, compared with May 2004, throughout central Puget Sound.

Within King County, Seattle saw the biggest price increase — 17 percent.

“The lack of supply is causing this frenzy,” said Judy Hay, a Coldwell Banker Bain agent in Bellevue. “Whenever a house does come on the market, you have four or five buyers.”

That’s exactly what Jim Conlan, a broker for Century 21 North Homes Realty, experienced when he tried to find a Shoreline home for a buyer with a $325,000 budget. His client submitted offers on five homes and was outbid each time.

In Hay’s view, the lack of inventory is at least partially the result of a shift in homeowners’ thinking. A year and a half ago, she says, they were trading homes simply because they wanted something else. Not now.

“Unless there is some reason to move, they’re not doing it,” Hay said. “They’ve refinanced and they’re saying, ‘Let’s remodel and stay where we’re at.’ “

Colleen Fischesser, the broker for RE/MAX Realty South in Maple Valley, also is sensing a wariness among potential sellers.

“I’m getting comments like, ‘Sure, I could get a great price for my house, but I want to stay in Maple Valley and where am I going to go?’ ” Fischesser said. “There’s nowhere to go, and that’s keeping our inventory low.”

Meanwhile, zero-down-payment programs and mortgage rates that continue to ride below 6 percent are flooding the market with potential buyers.

“They’re totally frantic,” Hay said. “They feel they have to buy now or they won’t be able to in a few months.”

But Conlan isn’t convinced inventory will remain low.

“Typically, the buyers start looking in early spring, but the sellers don’t have their house ready until late spring or early summer because they want to paint the fence or fix the porch,” Conlan said.

Perhaps sellers are a little late because of the recent rainy weather.

Meantime, little deters buyers. The woman who wanted a home in Shoreline recently found one — for $15,000 under her $325,000 limit — by going north to Edmonds.

“She really likes the house,” Conlan said. “She just had to go a little farther out to get what she wanted.”

Elizabeth Rhodes: erhodes@seattletimes.com