The median price of existing homes sold in the Washington area rose 3.4 percent in the third quarter of 1990 compared with the same period in 1989, almost double the national appreciation rate, the National Association of Realtors reported yesterday.

The real estate trade group said that in the Washington area the median price -- the figure at which half the homes cost more and half cost less -- rose from $148,300 to $153,400 in the third quarter, while the median price for the nation rose about 1.8 percent to $96,600.

The new figures received a mixed reception from local real estate executives, with one saying they marked a turnaround in the residential real estate market and another calling them misleadingly optimistic.

Ricki Gerger, vice president of the Prudential-Preferred Properties, said she believes the figures indicate the worst is over, particularly in the District, where the number of home sales rose 6.2 percent in the quarter-to-quarter comparison.

"These are very encouraging figures, especially in the number of units sold," Gerger said. "There's obviously a turnaround underway."

Executives at two other large regional real estate firms were more skeptical.

William W. Ellis, executive vice president of the residential division of Shannon & Luchs Co., said he believes prices have actually fallen, not risen in the area. "No matter how you slice it, the demand for housing is not as great as it was last year," he said. "It would be an aberration for the price of housing to be increasing."

A third prominent local real estate executive said he believes home prices are flat rather than rising, although he has seen some improvement in the market recently.

"Things are looking considerably better since we got a {federal} budget," said P. Wesley Foster Jr., chief executive officer at Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., who said that Mideast tensions and the U.S. military buildup there continue to be a "wild card" for the real estate market and for the nation.

According to John Tuccillo, chief economist for the Realtors' group, the underlying cause of recent real estate sluggishness was runaway price appreciation in the mid- to late-1980s that pushed many entry-level buyers out of the market.

Tuccillo noted that areas where price-appreciation was moderate through the 1980s, such as Rockford, Ill.; South Bend, Ind.; and Madison, Wis., are the areas that are now enjoying larger gains. In Rockford, the median price rose 9.9 percent, climbing to $69,700; in South Bend, it increased 14.7 percent to $59,200; and in Madison the median price was up 9.7 percent to $84,800.

For the most part, the areas that boomed in the 1980s are feeling a pinch at the start of the 1990s, according to the Realtors' statistics. In California, home prices have dropped after years of surging appreciation. The median price in San Francisco fell 3.1 percent to $261,600, Orange County dropped 1.8 percent to $241,700 and Los Angeles declined 4.7 percent to $211,400.

The most notable exception to the rule was Honolulu, where foreign investors are still pushing up prices. There, the median price rose 36.4 percent in the year, climbing from $275,000 to $375,000, making that city the nation's most expensive housing market.

Sales volume varied a good bit by jurisdiction in the Washington area. Sales were up 6.2 percent in the District, but they fell 16.7 percent in Maryland and 8.6 percent in Virginia.

METROPOLITAN AREA..........MEDIAN SALE...PCT. CHANGE FROM

.................................PRICE...1989 3RD QUARTER

FIVE SHARPEST INCREASES

Honolulu......................$375,000..............36.4%

Seattle.......................$144,800..............24.9%

Sacramento, Calif.............$144,600..............24.4%

South Bend, Ind................$59,200..............14.7%

Portland, Ore..................$82,300..............14.6%

FIVE SHARPEST DECREASES

Bergen-Passaic, N.J...........$187,200.............. 9.8%

New Haven, Conn...............$158,500.............. 5.9%

New Orleans....................$68,900.............. 5.5%

Hartford......................$159,400.............. 5.4%

Springfield, Mass.............$124,900.............. 4.9%

Washington....................$153,400...............3.4%

NOTE: Chart is based on a survey of home sales in 98 metropolitan areas between July and September. Percent change is from the same period a year ago.

SOURCE: National Association of Realtors.