Real estate's prolonged troubles, with their attendant bumper crop of foreclosures and reduced levels of home equity, may suggest that sales of vacation properties are nonexistent. The data for 2011 show otherwise, with the biggest share of vacation-home purchases last year made by investors, not folks who planned to own and occupy.

Still, said Philadelphia economist Kevin Gillen, a vice president at Econsult Corp. who follows the region's housing market, sales at the Shore continue to track well below average.

"While I can't speak to the composition of investor vs. owner-occupant sales, it seems to be the case that investors aren't flocking en masse to the Shore in anything like the big numbers we hear about in Vegas or Phoenix," Gillen said.

Paul Leiser, of Avalon Real Estate, said his first reaction is that "we are seeing more investors buying these days, especially in the lower to middle price ranges, than we had seen for several years."

The term investor needs to be defined, though, just to be clear about what is happening.

"Investor can mean someone who is buying strictly to rent the property out as much as possible for as many years as they plan on owning it, then ultimately selling the place for an expected long-term capital gain at some point down the road," Leiser said. "We are also seeing buyers who plan to rent their new property for only a portion of each summer and then use it themselves for the rest of the time. Or their plan could be to rent their new place for only a summer or two, before they convert it to personal use."

Buyers see the current market as an opportunity to possibly "move up" — for example, to a beach block as opposed to a mid-island property — by taking advantage now of lower asking prices, as well as the ability to rent the house out for a while to help them carry the higher price of the more desirable location, Leiser said.

The third quarter of 2011 saw prices decline slightly in the Shore towns after slight increases in the previous two quarters, Gillen's analysis of transactions there showed.

Because the Shore market is dominated by second homes and vacation properties that sit vacant for much of the year, in economically challenging times "such residences are more likely to be liquidated, and at a loss, than a primary residence," he said.

Exacerbating the situation at the Shore has been "the contraction in the casino industry due to increased competition from new casinos in Pennsylvania," Gillen said. That would likely explain why house-price declines in Atlantic City and the nearby communities, where many casino employees live, "exceed the price declines for other parts of the Jersey Shore," he added.

Who is buying? Older and more affluent people, Gillen believes.

"While tighter financing by lenders has inhibited many younger and less-affluent buyers from purchasing primary homes, this may not have as significant an effect on the Shore market, whose relatively pricier homes attract less-credit-constrained households, which in turn has helped to support sales activity," he said.

Nationally, investment-home sales rose 64.5 percent to 1.23 million last year, from 749,000 in 2010, according to the National Association of Realtors. Vacation-home sales rose 7 percent to 502,000 in 2011, from 469,000 in 2010. Owner-occupied purchases fell 15.5 percent, to 2.78 million.

The Realtors group said vacation-home sales accounted for 11 percent of all transactions last year, up from 10 percent in 2010, while the portion of investment sales jumped to 27 percent in 2011 from 17 percent in 2010.

"During the past year, investors have been swooping into the market to take advantage of bargain home prices," said the association's chief economist, Lawrence Yun. "Rising rental income easily beat cash sitting in banks as an added inducement. In addition, 41 percent of investment buyers purchased more than one property."

Yun said all-cash purchases had become common in the investment- and vacation-home market in recent years.

In 2011, 49 percent of investment buyers paid cash, as did 42 percent of vacation-home buyers. Half of all investment-home purchases in 2011 were distressed houses — foreclosures and short sales, in which a lender agrees to accept less for a property than is owed on the mortgage — as were 39 percent of vacation homes.

Of the buyers who financed their purchases with mortgages, large down payments were typical. The median down payment for both investment- and vacation-home buyers in 2011 was 27 percent, the Realtors group said.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac offered a maximum of 90 percent financing for vacation homes "at pretty much the same rates" for both investors and owner-occupants, Philadelphia mortgage broker Fred Glick said.

"On top of that, there will be private mortgage insurance that is a bit more expensive" than that for owner-occupants, he said. "But the individual looks at their own situation to see how much of their own cash they want to invest in a second home."

The median investment-home price was $100,000 nationally in 2011, up 6.4 percent from $94,000 in 2010, while the median vacation-home price was $121,300, down 19.1 percent from $150,000 in 2010, the Realtors group reported.

Its analysis of Census Bureau data shows there are 8 million vacation homes and 42.8 million investment units in the United States, compared with 75.3 million owner-occupied homes.

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, or@alheavens at Twitter.