Housing prices in the Washington area are soaring, right? Well, yes and no.

According to the National Association of Realtors, the median single-family home sold in the region in the first quarter went for $369,000, a 22.7 percent increase over the first quarter of 2004. That is the 16th-highest rate of appreciation among metropolitan areas, and it easily surpasses the 9.7 percent rate of housing appreciation in the United States as a whole.

Still, Washington area home prices were down a bit, compared with the fourth quarter of 2004, when the median was $370,800. So all the appreciation in that impressive 22.7 percent jump occurred during the middle and end of 2004, before what appeared to be a stall-out in the first three months of 2005.

One must be careful not to read too much into the numbers from one quarter -- the price of a Silver Spring split-level or a Great Falls mansion may well turn out to have spiked again after prices from the recently ended second quarter are reported.

Moreover, the data are not seasonally adjusted, meaning that the price drop could reflect standard fluctuations in winter demand for homes in the area. That explanation is not entirely satisfactory, though, because while local home prices dropped 0.4 percent in the first quarter, nationally they rose 0.7 percent, and most other hot housing markets reported more sizable gains.

-- Neil Irwin