Home sales in Utah fell 12.36 percent in the first quarter of 1997, compared to the first quarter of 1996, while home prices rose 6.58 percent over the same period, the Utah Association of Realtors reported Monday.

But the UAR said the decrease in sales and increase in prices may not be all that bad for housing in the state."At first glance, these figures might appear negative," said Georgia Ball, UAR president. "When looking at the big picture, however, this trend indicates a healthy balancing of our market as a result of the state's changing in-migration pattern."

Two years ago, so many people were coming to Utah - many attracted by the state's strong job market - that the housing inventory was virtually depleted. Now, with in-migration only half what it was, the inventory of available homes is increasing, said Ball, and buyers now have a wider array of choices in their price range.

But the slowdown in sales can also be blamed on rising interest rates, she said.

"Late last year and early this quarter, a slight bump in interest rates caused some would-be home-buyers to finally jump into the market," said Ball. The result was a short-lived increase in housing prices.

"But as rates continue to edge up, this pattern is leveling off," Ball said, adding that she expects "healthy" sales for the rest of the year.

For the various boards of Realtors across the state, the first quarter was mixed but the overall trend was for declining sales. The Salt Lake Board of Realtors reported an 18.63 percent decline in home sales for the quarter with an average sales price was $154,996. Condominium sales also declined in Salt Lake, down 6.25 percent, with an average sales price of $106,181.

In Utah County, a 3.14 percent increase was reported, with an average price of $145,431.

In Park City, sales moved up 1.05 percent with an average sales price of $338,830. Condo sales were down 26.98 percent at an average price of $264,239. Wasatch County reported a 21.43 percent jump in sales at an average price of $148,597.

In southern Utah, the Washington County board said home sales declined 6.76 percent at an average price of $125,158. Condo sales went down 29.84 percent at an average of $108,876.

The Greater Ogden board reported an 8.23 decrease in sales at an average of $130,846, while Tooele County had a 17.81 percent decline at an average of $106,688.

The Brigham City-Tremonton board reported a 14.08 percent increase with an average price of $104,122.