U.S. sales of existing homes fell in December, closing out a year in which sales of single-family homes plunged by the largest amount in...

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WASHINGTON — U.S. sales of existing homes fell in December, closing out a year in which sales of single-family homes plunged by the largest amount in 25 years. Nationally, the median home price dropped for the entire year, the first time that has occurred in four decades.

The National Association of Realtors reported Thursday that sales of single-family homes and condominiums dropped by 2.2 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.89 million units.

King County followed that trend, as the sale of both new and resale houses and condominiums fell 34 percent year-over-year last month, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

For the year, sales nationwide of single-family homes were down by 13 percent, the biggest drop since a 17.7 percent plunge in 1982. In King County, they were down 15 percent.

The median price nationwide for a single-family home dropped 1.8 percent to $217,000. That was the first annual price decline on records going back to 1968. Lawrence Yun, the Realtors’ chief economist, said it was likely that the country has not experienced a decline in housing prices for an entire year since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

King County’s prices bucked the national pricing trend, posting 7.1 percent appreciation for single-family houses.

The new U.S. figures underscored the severity of the slump in housing, which has been battered for the past two years after enjoying a boom in which sales set records for five consecutive years.

Last month, sales were down in all regions of the country. Sales fell by 4.6 percent in the Northeast, 1.7 percent in the Midwest, 1 percent in the South and 2.1 percent in the West.

The inventory of unsold homes dropped by 7.4 percent, raising hopes that backlogs that had hit record levels were starting to be reduced, a key factor necessary to prompt a rebound in the market.

While Yun said he expected sales to start to rebound this spring; other analysts said housing is likely to remain in the doldrums throughout most of 2008, reflecting, in part, the credit crunch, which has caused lenders to tighten their standards, making it harder for prospective buyers to qualify for loans.

Separately, rates on 30-year mortgages dropped for a fourth straight week to the lowest level in nearly four years, raising hopes that low rates will help spur a rebound in the housing industry.

Freddie Mac, the mortgage company, reported Thursday that 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages averaged 5.48 percent this week, down from 5.69 percent last week.

It was the fourth consecutive decline and the third week that rates have been below the 6 percent level. The new rate marked the lowest point for 30-year mortgages since they averaged 5.40 percent the week of March 25, 2004.

Seattle Times business reporter Elizabeth Rhodes contributed to this report.