Sales of previously owned houses in the eight-county Philadelphia region rose 37 percent in March from February, Prudential Fox & Roach's HomExpert Market Report said Thursday.

Nationally, the sales numbers paled in comparison, with a 2.8 percent drop in March from February's levels, the National Association of Realtors reported.

Year-over-year sales performance was higher in March both regionally and across the country, although the Philadelphia area experienced a 9.8 percent increase from 2011 compared with 5.2 percent nationwide.

The region's median sale price got a 4.3 percent boost, to $190,000, in March from February, but was 2.6 percent lower than 2011's $195,000. The median U.S. price was $163,800 in March, up 2.5 percent from the same month a year ago.

"Buyers are out and about and buying property," said Noelle M. Barbone, office manager at Weichert Realtors in Media. "[About] 75 percent of the offers we are seeing on our listings, as well as offers our agents are writing on other brokers' listings, are competing" with bids from other prospective buyers.

"Properties that are priced correctly are selling," Barbone said. "We believe we will be short of inventory by end of 2012."

The end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 "portend that the slide down may be over and the market is stabilizing and seeking the elusive 'new normal,'" said Charles V. Cosgrove Jr., owner of Mr. Chips School of Real Estate in Doylestown, pointing to the last three quarters of "more unit sales and greater closed dollar volume than in the same quarters of the previous years."

In the rest of the country, March sales were disappointing, said Holland, Bucks County, economist Joel L. Naroff. A second month's decline was "not the direction most of us hoped for," he said, adding that the big problems were in the West, where sales were down sharply.

"Since the West is ground zero for the housing problems, that dearth of supply" — fewer distressed houses that would ordinarily have been purchased by investors — "may be at work," Naroff said.

Rising prices might be the result of the absence of distressed homes in the mix, he said. Because there are fewer foreclosed houses in this market than elsewhere, that is probably the reason median prices rose here.

"Existing-home sales declined in March mainly because fewer investors bought homes," IHS Global Insight economist Patrick Newport said, affirming Naroff's observations. "Sales to those looking for a home to live in have been flat [and weak] for the past six months, despite low borrowing rates, low home prices, and rising rents."

A critical question is whether sales will take off as the economy continues to recover.

"Our view is that sales will improve during the course of this year," he said, "but unless credit conditions loosen significantly, a takeoff will not take place."

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