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Let's sell them more than just houses

This year will be remembered as the one when the Hernando County housing market found the bottom and maybe, finally, began to climb out.

The climb out is definitely true when it comes to volume.

With 2,909 sales recorded through the end of last week by the Hernando County Association of Realtors and scores of year-end closings scheduled for the next few days, it looks as though the number of transactions during 2012 will hit the 3,000 mark for the first time in years.

The numbers from the county Property Appraiser's Office are a little different. The property appraiser figures in all sales, not just ones conducted by Realtors. The office also excludes sales of manufactured homes, which the Realtors include.

Still, the trend is the same. As of last week, it had recorded more than 2,000 transactions, an increase of 14.7 percent from 2011.

Housing starts, though sadly low — the county had issued 160 single-family home permits through mid December — are clearly trending higher than last year, when the county wrote a historically miniscule number of permits — 124.

The picture is a little murkier when it comes to prices.

The Realtors association shows an upturn, with an average cost of a new home, $97,411, more than $3,000 higher than in 2011.

But if we've been desperately waiting for that time when the value of residential property and the taxes collected on it start to rise in Hernando, we'll have to wait a little longer. Figures provided by the Property Appraiser's Office showed that the decline in prices has merely slowed from the double-digit year-to-year plunges of earlier this decade; the average sale price of a home so far in 2012 is 3.8 percent lower than in 2011.

Taken together, though, the numbers are enough to bring hope to Realtors such as Vladimir Hucko of Spring Hill.

Hucko, who gained credibility with me by being one of the first Realtors to call the bust what it was in the early days, said that buying a house in Hernando now "is a no-brainer."

When potential customers say they are undecided about buying, he said, "I tell them, 'You don't need a house; you need a head doctor.' "

"We're definitely seeing more sales, less inventory, prices going up," said Barry Stafford, the Realtors association's executive vice president. "I'm even hearing people say they have multiple offers (for listed homes), and it's been a long time since I've heard that."

Of course, there's no boom yet, and the hundreds of yet-to-be-processed foreclosures will be a drag on prices for months, maybe years, to come. The high percentage of cash purchases Realtors are reporting means that many of the buyers are investors, which probably also means a future with more homes occupied by renters rather than owners.

And, finally, keep in mind that the turnaround in the Hernando market has come later and less vigorously than in Pasco and Hillsborough counties, and that housing statistics and surveys of buyers around the country consistently show an increased preference for areas close to urban cores.

Also, even bargain-hunting investors want to know that Hernando has something more to offer than a one-hour commute to Tampa, Hucko said.

"The first question they ask is, 'What kind of industry do you have here?' " he said.

At the same time, it seems the main reason housing prices have started to creep up here is that they couldn't keep going down.

"Prices are so low in Hernando that nobody can beat it," Hucko said.

Stafford told me about a "livable" two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in the Brooksville area that recently sold for $12,000.

That's not the best path to a healthy economy — selling homes to people who can't afford to live anywhere else.

Yet it seems to be the path we're following. Cut impact fees, widen roads, give a thumbs-up to any project anybody wants to build. Those are to economic development what coal is to energy policy — stopgaps, shortsighted, destructive in the long run.

What's better? Devoting resources to the industrial park at the Hernando . . . excuse me, at the newly renamed Brooksville-Tampa Regional Airport and Technology Center. And yes, even if that name change is mostly symbolic, it's symbolic of a more forward-thinking path.

And, no way around it, we have to raise taxes to maintain parks and libraries and provide decent public services.

Otherwise, people buying houses here for rock-bottom prices will simply be getting their money's worth.

Let's sell them more than just houses 12/25/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 6:41pm]
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