First-time buyers rushing to qualify for the $8,000 tax credit teamed up in November with interest rates at or below 5 percent to create another positive month for sales of previously owned homes.

Nationally, sales were 44.1 percent higher than in November 2008, the National Association of Realtors reported yesterday, with 51 percent of the purchases attributable to rookie buyers.

Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors group, said the November increase - 7.4 percent above October's sale levels - was expected.

"This clearly is a rush of first-time buyers not wanting to miss out on the tax credit, but there are many more potential buyers who can enter the market in the months ahead," Yun said.

In the eight-county Philadelphia region, sales rose 75.4 percent above November 2008's levels, data from Prudential Fox & Roach's HomExpert Market Report showed. Putting things in context, however, is the fact that November 2008 was one of the worst months on record regionally, with existing-home sales 35 percent lower than the same month in 2007.

Numbers for the last three years show that 5,076 houses changed hands this November, compared with 2,894 in the same month in 2008 and 4,455 in November 2007.

The tax credit for first-time buyers, originally set to expire Nov. 30, also was key to the regional increase in sales. Prudential Fox & Roach senior vice president Steve Storti said 40 percent of buyers in November were first-timers, compared with the usual percentage in the 30s.

Although the housing industry was cheered by November's figures, economist Patrick Newport of IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass., said the forecast for December doesn't look as promising.

Newport said the Mortgage Bankers Association's Purchases Index fell in November to its lowest level since 1997. Unless it picks up speed, this month's reading will be the second weakest for 2009.

"This indicates that the second tax credit has yet to kick in, and that it will not lift home sales as much as the first one," he said, projecting that numbers will actually drop in the first quarter of 2010.

Joel L. Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisers in Holland, Bucks County, was more upbeat, noting, "While the rush to take advantage of the first-time home buyers' credit helped greatly, the housing market is gaining steam."

Naroff, too, predicted that sales would moderate over the next few months, as those eligible for tax credits take their time deciding.

"That should not be seen as a setback for the housing market," he said. "It will likely be the pause that refreshes."

In early November, after months of haggling, Congress approved an extension of the $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers to April 30 and provided a $6,500 incentive for those who haven't bought a home in the previous five years.

Both nationwide and locally, sales data showed, median prices fell year over year for November.

In the eight-county region, prices dipped 2.4 percent, the HomExpert data showed, reflecting the large number of lower-end sales attractive to first-time buyers. The median in November was $204,250, compared with $209,650 in November 2008.

Nationally, prices fell 4.3 percent year over year, to $172,600. Much of that decline was blamed on the continued high level of foreclosure sales in the so-called "sand" states (California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida), which accounted for 33 percent of transactions across the country.

Yet some housing-market observers believe tighter credit is what continues to keep many potential buyers on the sidelines.

Yesterday, Pennsylvania announced a $1.2 billion program to help more than 11,000 home buyers find affordable mortgages.

The initiative is a partnership of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, the U.S. Treasury, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac.

"The message to existing homeowners and first-time home buyers alike is that now is a great time to buy a home in Pennsylvania," Gov. Rendell said in announcing the program.

Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.