Hundreds more homes sold across Tampa Bay last month than the year before, as tight supplies sent prices rising and helped the market build in strength.
Nearly 2,900 homes sold in October, a 35 percent jump over the same month last year, Multiple Listing Service data shows. Median sales prices rose 9 percent to $133,000.
Sellers in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando closed deals quicker, more often and at rebounding prices, giving traction to hopes of a housing recovery.
And it's not all low-priced foreclosures or "short" sales, sold for less than the homeowner owes, that are leading to new deals. Only about four out of 10 sales this year have been for "distressed" homes. Growing values allow previously underwater homeowners to come out ahead on conventional sales.
Realtors and economists say the market's slow thaw comes thanks to a tight supply. Investors are fighting for bottom-of-the-bucket foreclosures as soon as they hit the market, agents said, and conventional buyers are launching bidding wars for homes in favored neighborhoods.
"People think the train's left the station, and they better get on the train while interest rates are low," said Keller Williams real estate agent Scott Samuels. "If they don't, they'll miss the train, and they'll pay top dollar."
In Hillsborough County, inventory sagged in September to 7,000 listings, 5,000 fewer than a year before, Greater Tampa Association of Realtors data shows.
At that rate, those listings would sell out in less than four months. In contrast, during the housing crash, local inventory surpassed a 20-month supply, meaning it would take that long to sell the homes if no others came on the market.
Tampa Bay's progress is part of a nationwide surge as values climb and supplies dwindle after the market's six-year slump. American home prices rose 5 percent in September, the biggest yearly increase since 2006, real estate data firm CoreLogic said this week.
Across the state, Florida Realtors data shows, year-over-year sales prices have climbed every month this year.
October's housing gains have extended Tampa Bay's 2012 swell. In the first 10 months, Hillsborough and Pinellas each sold 9 percent more homes compared with the same time last year, according to MLS. Pasco sold 11 percent more, and Hernando 17 percent.
Condo, townhome and villa sales also inched up this year by 2 percent, with prices about $9,000 higher, MLS data shows.
One of Tampa Bay's biggest bright spots was conventional listings, with 27 percent more sales this year, higher prices and less time on the market.
Many fewer foreclosed homes sold this year as banks slowed their listings of repossessed homes, possibly due to court delays or to eke out higher prices.
Agents said banks are more often avoiding foreclosure and instead approving short sales, which turn over quicker and cost the lender less. Short sales in Tampa Bay grew by 33 percent, and sold for about $11,000 cheaper than the median last year, as banks settled for leaner prices to sweep homes off their books.
"The lower-end stuff is falling off the market," said Hillsborough Title short sale processor Beth Cromwell. "Buyers are still able to get deals."
More sales at higher prices could inject some breathing room into local inventories, as homeowners previously reluctant to sell for cheap opt to test the waters.
Building is starting to percolate, too. Developers are restarting massive subdivisions, scooping up land and betting tens of millions of dollars that buyers put off by low inventories of existing homes will instead invest in newly built homes.
Thousands more permits to build single-family homes across Tampa Bay have been pulled this year, U.S. Census data shows, a signal of growth to come.
But agents caution against seeing the good housing news as the first sparks of an explosive ascent. Tampa Bay's median prices remain below the national median of $186,000, and far below the local peak of $240,000 in 2006. Outside factors, too, could still tamp down housing's rise.
"When you have this many people unemployed, and this many economic woes … it's hard for me to say the real estate market's going to become a new boom," said Andrew Duncan, chief executive of Re/Max Dynamic in Tampa. "But we're seeing lots of positive things."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.