Sales of Peninsula-area existing homes in January were down 7 percent from January 2009. That makes last month's sales volume of 181 homes the lowest since at least 1997, when the Real Estate Information Network started tracking the region's figures.

Vinod Agarwal, an Old Dominion University economics professor, doesn't give too much weight to one month's statistics.

"When you look at one month at the time, the numbers don't necessarily tell you the whole story," he said. "One month isn't a good enough sample to talk about trends."

Tom Sullivan, president of the Virginia Peninsula Association of Realtors, agreed.

The Peninsula has seen double-digit year-over-year sales increases for the past three months. A one-month departure from that trend — particularly during what's typically the slowest sales month of the year — is likely a fluke, not an indication of what's ahead, Sullivan said.

"If that continues over a couple of months, I'll be sort of in a panic," he said.

South Hampton Roads outperformed the Peninsula area, with existing home sales up 28 percent last month, compared to January 2009. The Peninsula is a smaller market, so it's more vulnerable to swings, Sullivan said.

Or there may have been more distressed sales in South Hampton Roads than on the Peninsula, Agarwal said.

Across the region, one out of every four sales, or 26 percent, were distressed sales, such as those facing foreclosure, according to the Real Estate Information Network. South Hampton Roads cities have seen more foreclosures than the Peninsula has, according to RealtyTrac, which monitors foreclosure activity.

Sales gains in recent months can also be attributed to falling prices, low interest rates and the $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers. The tax credit was extended, giving buyers until June 30 to close, and expanded to give a $6,500 tax credit to existing homeowners who buy a home.

"It was a huge success, and whether we can expect to maintain those levels is yet to be seen," Sullivan said. "My opinion is that we'll probably get a lot of people to use it but probably not the surge that we saw in the fall."

The median sales price of Peninsula-area existing homes was $180,000 last month, down nearly 3 percent from the same month last year.

Prices seem to be stabilizing, Sullivan said.

"Hopefully, we will see the normal appreciation begin to build back into the market," he said.

New construction was off to a rocky start, with sales down nearly 24 percent from January 2009. The median sales price was up nearly 8 percent, though, to $295,270.

South Hampton Roads also saw a drop-off in new construction sales. It was down 44 percent, with the median sales price up 18 percent to $333,450.

Peninsula-area condo sales plunged 45 percent in January, with the median sales price down 30 percent to $133,950. Condo sales in South Hampton Roads were down 10 percent, with the median sales price up 8 percent to $213,312.

The residential real estate market is still clogged with a surplus of homes for sale. On the Peninsula, the number of homes listed for sale increased by 6 percent last month, compared to January 2009. That tells Sullivan that consumer confidence is improving, Sullivan said.

"They think that it's stabilizing," he said of sellers putting their homes up for sale. "Confidence in the market is beginning to get restored."

It'll take roughly eight months, at the current sales pace, to sell the number of homes currently listed on the market in Hampton, Newport News and York County. About a six-month supply is generally considered a balanced market.

In Isle of Wight and Poquoson, it'll take more than a year to get through the inventory currently listed for sale, according to the Real Estate Information Network.