Existing home sales prices stabilized and total sales numbers climbed in the fourth quarter of 2010 compared to the dismal third quarter, according to data released Thursday by the National Association of Realtors.

Total existing-home sales jumped 15.4% to a seasonally adjusted rate of 4.5 million in the third quarter, a decided improvement from the 4.16 million in the third quarter but 19.1% lower than they were in the fourth quarter of 2009, when sales were artificially pumped up to an unsustainable 5.97 million by the first-time buyer tax credit.

“Home sales clearly recovered in the latter part of 2010 and are helping to absorb the inventory, including many distressed properties,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist in the news release.

Existing median home prices, at $170,600, remained relatively flat, rising a scant 0.2% across the United States in the fourth quarter of 2010 from the same quarter in 2009. However, median sale prices showed some strength in the Northeast, where they were up 2.3%, and weakness in the West, falling 2.9%.

Distressed home sales, which accounted for about a third (34%) of existing home sales, typically sold at a discount of 10% to 15%.

Unsurprisingly, housing markets with the healthier job markets showed greater price appreciation. In the Washington, D.C., region, for instance, the median single-family home price was $331,100 in the fourth quarter, up 8.1% compared to a year ago. The Boston-Cambridge-Quincy area, with a median price of $346,300 was up 4.2% and the Austin-Round Rock, Texas, market at $190,300 climbed 4.1% in the year, the NAR numbers pointed out.

An interesting aside in the NAR data showed median existing-condo prices falling nationally to $164,200 in the fourth quarter, down 6.4% from the forth quarter of 2009.

“Consumers in the hard hit regions of Nevada, Arizona, and Florida were able to scoop up condos at absolute bargain basement prices,” Yun said.

Median condo/co-op prices in Las Vegas-Paradise, Nev., were $60,700, $68,900 in Phoenix-Scottsdale, and $81,900 in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area.

Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder magazine