The economy in Hernando County has begun to stabilize, even showing new signs of life, first-quarter statistics seem to indicate.
Economic indicators such as home sales, foreclosure filings and building permits issued for single-family homes, all are moving in positive directions.
The local numbers validate a recent report by University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith, who predicts that the worst of the recession is behind us, though he cautions that it will take time before things return to normal.
"2010 marks the start of Florida's long climb out of recession," Snaith wrote recently.
For Hernando, which has been suffering from record unemployment, to climb all the way out, the surplus of available homes must decrease. And Realtors say they have been busy. Buyers are in a rush to take advantage of tax credits, which range from $6,500 to $8,000 and end on April 30.
Single-family home sales for the first quarter of 2010 increased 14 percent over the same time last year, and sales are up 35 percent since the first quarter of 2008, according to the Hernando County Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service.
In addition, the median sale price for single-family homes, now at $109,000, appears to be stabilizing after dropping significantly each year from $199,900 since the first quarter of 2006.
While many homes have been sold to buyers seeking to make the most of the tax credit, Realtors say they've also seen many out-of-state retirees with cash in hand snatching up what they consider to be good deals.
"Sales have been good," said Joshua Hanoud, Realtor-associate with Tropic Shores Realty in Spring Hill. "I sold six houses in February."
Hernando County, which once had a surplus of 4,000 homes on the market, now has just 2,015 available homes, said Al Boland, president of the local Realtors association.
While the construction industry has continued to take a beating, permits for single-family homes were up 17 percent this year compared to last year's first quarter and up 43 percent compared to the monthly average for 2009.
"We've definitely seen an increase in traffic," said Chris Glover of Palmwood Builders. "Maybe we're on the upside."
Snaith predicts 2010 will be another difficult year for the housing market statewide, with foreclosures adding to the surplus and banks unwilling to lend money.
Much of Hernando's improvement hinges on jobs, and the number of county residents who are out of work or underemployed continues to be worrisome.
Unemployment dipped slightly, from 15.8 percent to 15.6 percent, between January and February, then dropped to 15.1 percent in March. Currently, census employment and other federal stimulus-created jobs may be providing a lift. Once those jobs end, no one is certain whether other jobs will be there to replace them.
For the first quarter of 2010, social service agencies saw a small decrease in calls for help.
"The number of 211 calls have gone down, but not by much," Kathy Jones, executive director for the United Way of Hernando County, said, referring to the agency's information referral phone number.
The United Way is still receiving a large number of calls from individuals seeking support with their utility bills and their mortgage or rent, Jones added.
Residents have also been seeking food pantries and counseling services.
Hernando County's Department of Health and Human Services also noted a small decrease in individuals looking for assistance, particularly with utilities and housing.
But for those out of work, maintaining health insurance can be a problem. Department director Jean Rags said her office has seen an increase in requests for health care.
Officials noted that income tax refunds might explain some of the decrease in requests for help.
"They have been using that to pay bills," Rags said.
Whether the improvements in the economy will continue, as Snaith predicts, is anyone's guess. After the economic challenges of the last few years, even the most optimistic remain cautious.
"I'm hoping what we're seeing will turn into some favorable trends," said Mike McHugh, business development director for Hernando County.
Said Rags: "The true test will come in the coming months."
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at [email protected]