Buyers still do not have a lot of homes to choose from as the Washington metro area prepares to slide into what usually is an optimistic spring market.

"Inventory is the story of the spring," said David Howell, of McEnearney Associates in McLean.

Inventory is so low that there was not one townhome for sale in all of Arlington County in January, Howell said.

Metropolitan Regional Information Systems data for January showed active listings are down 42 percent over last year in Washington, 37.1 percent in Northern Virginia, 36.7 percent in Montgomery County and 22.3 percent in Loudoun County.

"And it isn't just total inventory," Howell said. "There aren't as many new listings coming on the market either."

Corey Hart, of RealEstate Business Intelligence, reported there were more than 4,000 fewer active listings at the end of January than a year ago, the lowest January total on record.

Howell said that, in general, inventory is tightest for attached homes priced at less than $500,000 and really tight for those at less than $300,000 in every property type across jurisdictions. There is about a one-month supply of inventory on hand.