New California legislation known as the "homeowner bill of rights" helped the rate of new foreclosures to plunge in the North Bay and beyond in January, while home prices and sales in general continued a steady upward climb, according to reports released by Irvine-based foreclosure tracker RealtyTrac and San Diego-based real estate data service DataQuick.

January home sales in the Bay Area reached a six-year high and brought the 10th straight year-over-year increase in median sale price, according to DataQuick. Last month, 5,330 homes sold, a 3.2 percent increase from January 2012. The median price of $442,750 was up 27.3 percent from the prior year.

In Sonoma County, median home prices rose over the year by 19.3 percent to $340,000. There were 398 homes sold, a 5.9 percent decrease from January 2012.

Marin County median prices rose 22.4 percent to $640,000. The 181 homes sold represented a 5.2 percent decrease.

The number of homes sold in Napa County rose 16.1 percent to 108. The median price of $380,000 increased 14.3 percent.

Solano County sales grew by 3 percent to 523 homes. The average price rose 21.8 percent versus the year before, to $219,000.

At least half the year-to-year price change was due to changes in the mix of homes sold, according to DataQuick. The number of Bay Area homes sold for less than $500,000 decreased 17.9 percent, while the number sold for more than that amount grew by 45.4 percent.

Distressed property sales, including foreclosure resales and short sales, made up 37.7 percent of the resale market, compared with 55.6 percent in January 2012.

"Jumbo loans" -- loans beyond the former limit of $417,000 -- were more common, accounting for 38 percent of lending on January purchases, compared with 23.6 percent a year prior. Adjustable-rate mortgages accounted for 11.4 percent of loans, down from 11.7 percent in January of last year.

Government-insured loans by the Federal Housing Administration, a popular choice for first-time buyers, accounted for 15.5 percent of Bay Area loans, compared with 23.6 percent in the prior year.

Absentee buyers, which are generally investors, purchased 26.7 percent of all Bay Area homes last month, an all-time high since DataQuick began gathering that data in 2000. Those buyers purchased 25.2 percent of homes in January 2012.

All-cash payments accounted for 28.5 percent of sales in January, versus 29.8 percent in the prior year.New foreclosures continue to fall

Foreclosure rates continued to fall across the North Bay, California and the United States in January, according to RealtyTrac. No North Bay county had a rate lower than the national average, and only Solano and Lake counties had rates higher than the state.

The lowest rate of new foreclosures in the North Bay was in Marin County -- one out of every 1,234 homes was involved in a new foreclosure filing in January, with 87 new filings that month down from the earliest comparable number of 175 filings in February 2012. No average price was given for foreclosure sales in Marin.

In Sonoma County, one in every 779 homes was involved in a filing. There were 259 new filings, versus 693 in February 2012, and the average price for a foreclosed home sold that month was $303,035.

Napa County saw a new filing for one in every 838 homes, with 65 new filings versus 194 in February. The average price for a foreclosed home in that county was $289,556.

There were 47 new filings in Mendocino County in January, versus 102 last February, accounting for 1 in every 785 homes and with an average sale price for foreclosed homes that month of $201,785.

Solano County had the highest rate of new foreclosures in the North Bay at one in every 466 homes. There were 323 filings in January versus 946 last February, and the average foreclosure sale price was $194,846.

In Lake County, one in every 718 homes received a new foreclosure filing. There were 43 new filings in January compared to 236 last February, and the overall trend was falling despite relatively large month-to-month changes. The average price for a foreclosed home sold there in January was $102,733.

California had a foreclosure rate of one in every 753 homes, or 18,093 filings. A year before, filings totaled 48,422. The average price for a foreclosure sale was $275,421.

Nationally, one in every 869 homes went into foreclosure last month, or 150,865 filings. The average sale price was $190,000.  Filings a year before totaled 206,900.