Apartment sales continued their ascent in the first quarter of 2012, jumping 31 percent over the same time frame in 2011, according to New York–based commercial real estate research firm Real Capital Analytics (RCA).

Garden properties, totaling $7.1 billion in sales, drove most of the volume, while high-rises rose $4.8 billion. Both sectors jumped 30 percent from a year ago. Portfolio deals also boosted the first-quarter totals, with 52 transactions involving 185 properties adding $2.6 billion in volume.

Distressed sales provided 13 percent of total sales, a 9 percent increase from the fourth quarter of 2011. That figure was below the 25 percent the sector experienced for all of 2011. Sales of distressed properties totaled only $1.5 billion in the first quarter, the lowest quarterly total since 2009.

Not surprisingly, cap rates continued to fall in the first quarter, according to RCA, sliding to 6.3 percent, which the firm says represents “a nearly complete recovery from the financial crisis, although yields are still higher than during the condo conversion frenzy that ended in 2006.”

The volume trends are consistent across tertiary, primary, and secondary markets, but cap rate trends vary. In secondary markets, they remain unchanged; in tertiary markets, they’ve increased slightly; and in major markets, they’ve compressed. That sentiment was echoed on today’s earning call from Chicago-based Equity Residential. “There’s still a great deal of capital chasing very few assets today,” CEO David Neithercut said.

When that happens, cap rates are bound to fall.