January home sales slipped by 5 percent in the Baltimore area, while the number of homes on the market reached its lowest point in nearly six years, numbers released Friday show.

There were 1,334 homes sold in the area last month, down from January 2011 but 4 percent higher than the five-year average for the month, according to data from the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems.

The median sale price of a home in Baltimore rose 29 percent, to $93,100, but the city continued to be the most affordable in the region. Except for Howard County, where the median sales price climbed slightly to $348,500, sale prices were flat or slightly lower across the Baltimore area.

The report from MRIS, which runs the multiple-listing service used to buy and sell homes in the region, painted a broad picture of low home inventory, fewer foreclosures and a slight increase in pending home sales last month.

The listing inventory in the Baltimore area was at its lowest point since April 2006, according to MRIS.

There were more than 12,000 homes on the market last month in Baltimore and the five closest surrounding counties — a drop of 23 percent from the nearly 16,000 homes on the market in January last year. The lower inventory was a good sign for the health of the market, as it helped pull supply and demand closer together, according to industry observers.

"It's healthy to have less supply in the market," said Dwayne Carte, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors in Lutherville. In the recent past, he said, "there was a huge opening split between supply and demand."

Homes stayed on the market an average of 128 days, seven more days than in January last year, the numbers show.

Foreclosed property sales in the region declined 47 percent, from 394 properties in January 2011 to 209 properties last month. But there were more short sales last month — 168 — than the 113 sales in January last year.

In a positive sign, new contract activity climbed 2.5 percent from last January.

And prices for attached homes such as townhouses and condominiums climbed 16 percent, to nearly $179,000. The increase suggested more activity among first-time home buyers and the shoring up of prices for existing homeowners who might be interested in trading up for a larger, single-family detached home, according to Carte.

Even as prices for attached homes climbed, the average price for detached homes headed in the opposite direction. The average sales price declined 5 percent in the Baltimore region, to $316,000.

Tina Castronovo Beliveau, an agent with Prudential PenFed Realty in Baltimore, said she is beginning to see the pace of home sales quicken. On several occasions, she said, she's scheduled house tours with a buyer, only to discover on the day of the tour that the house is under contract.

"There are a lot of buyers taking advantage of the buyer's market," said Beliveau, who focuses on homes in Baltimore city and county. "Perhaps the market is strengthening to a point."

Median sale prices, January 2012

Anne Arundel$275,000 (-8 percent)

Baltimore $93,100 (+29 percent)

Baltimore County$177,000 (-9 percent)

Carroll $221,500 (-6 percent)

Harford$225,000 (-5 percent)

Howard $348,500 (+1 percent)

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