After free falling for more than two years, west Florida homes sales appear to be bottoming out.
April's housing activity presented a cautiously optimistic picture: Sales are stabilizing as home sellers cut prices to entice buyers. Here's some evidence:
• Sales were up from April 2007 to April 2008 in some of the worst hit markets south of the Tampa Bay area. Sarasota, Punta Gorda and Fort Myers-Cape Coral all reported rising sales vs. a year earlier.
• Tampa Bay area single-family home sales slipped 8 percent year to year, but Hillsborough and Citrus counties both reported little or no decline. Although Pinellas County Realtors said sales were down 10.7 percent, condo sales were higher than they've been since June 2007.
• Pending sales, homes under contract waiting to close, were up in April in every county in the Tampa Bay area compared to a year earlier.
"Sales are stabilizing, but they're stabilizing at a level that's still low," University of Florida economist David Denslow said after Friday's release by the Florida Association of Realtors. "But that's better news than having sales continue to plunge."
Higher sales correlated with lower prices. Where prices dropped the most, like Fort Myers, sales spiked. Business in Fort Myers surged 41 percent in April. The Tampa region's median home price is $176,000, 26 percent below the high mark of $239,300 in June 2006.
"Price, price, price is what sells a house. Period," said Nikki Ubaldini, a Palm Harbor real estate broker affiliated with Keller Williams Realty. "Nine of 10 people just want to know they're paying a fair price."
Denslow assumes home prices won't flatten statewide until 2009. And he expects no sustained home price rise until 2011, when the first batch of baby boomers crosses the age of 65.
April sales in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties totalled 2,087. That's 8 percent below April 2007's total of 2,257. Purchases approximated those of April 1999.
Realtors cautioned that the inventory of unsold homes remains high, which will put further pressure on prices.
"I think it is premature to say that the downturn is over, but I do believe it is nearing the end," Pinellas Realtor Organization president Ann Guiberson said.
Also tempering the optimism is the recognition that many homes changed hands through short sales. That happens when a bank agrees to sell a house for less than the outstanding mortgage. One-third of Ubaldini's current business is short sales.
The market seems most stable in Hillsborough, where the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors reported sales down only a hair year to year, 1,235 vs. 1,249 a year earlier.
Deborah Farmer of Star Light Realty, this year's president of the Tampa association, hopes to press that advantage into what is now the peak selling season.
"If we don't make it in April, May or June, that's pretty much it for us," Farmer said.
Denslow said Tampa's home price retreat to $176,000 positions the region for recovery. It's about equally priced with Tallahassee and Daytona Beach and less expensive than Gainesville.
"The fact that you're now on par with Central Florida and other parts of the Southeast is good news for you," he said.