Realtors in Tampa Bay finally closed on a December to remember, as sales of existing homes surged 17 percent from a year ago and rose an unexpected 34 percent in just one month.
There was even a slight reprieve from the drumbeat of falling prices, with the median sales price inching up 1 percent to $126,100 between November and December.
John Rurkowski, a broker with the Clearwater office of Charles Rutenberg Realty, said the burst of activity is continuing into January, with more home browsers turning into home buyers.
"Our closings for January are already at 100 percent of what we did last January, and we still have 10 days left in the month," he said. "Agents are sometimes getting multiple offers on properties again, which is fantastic."
St. Petersburg Realtor Frank Malowany, who specializes in the luxury market, thinks more long-term holdouts who have seen everything on the market the past two years are finally wading in.
Sales of high-end homes in local beach communities were dead for a long time. In recent weeks, he's seeing more contracts signed.
"There were a lot of people in the market waiting for someone to make the first move," he said. "It's like a domino effect."
The sales trend extends far beyond the bay area.
Statewide, 15,550 single-family homes changed hands in December, up 31 percent from November, while the median sales price increased less than 1 percent to $133,100. Nationwide, sales of existing homes jumped 12 percent between November and December, reaching the strongest sales pace since May.
"The pattern over the past six months is clearly showing a recovery," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist with the National Association of Realtors. "The December pace is near the volume we're expecting for 2011, so the market is getting much closer to an adequate, sustainable recovery."
Yun predicted recovery will likely continue as job growth gains momentum and rising rents encourage more renters to buy homes while they're still affordable and interest rates are still relatively low.
One positive sign was that national housing inventory continued to fall, from a 9.5-month supply in November to an 8.1-month supply at year-end. A healthy inventory supply would be closer to six months.
Patricia "Pat" Fitzgerald, president of the Florida Realtors, said it was encouraging to close the year on a high note. She credited the $8,000 home buyer tax credit with fueling home and condo sales in the first half of the year, while low mortgage rates and "favorable affordability conditions" enticed buyers at year end.
Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wells Fargo, noted another possible reason for the December jump: Banks may have been trying to clear troubled properties off their books before the end of the year. "It is quite possible this reflects foreclosed properties and short sales," he said
It was encouraging that prices didn't fall further as thousands of foreclosures depress the market.
But Vitner kept long-term expectations in check, with distressed sales accounting for 36 percent of all transactions, up from 33 percent in November. He doesn't anticipate a sustained recovery "until we move past this mountain of foreclosures."
Compared to a year ago, the change in home sales throughout Florida was far less dramatic. Sales were up 4 percent, while prices were down 5 percent. Tampa Bay's median home price was down 8 percent compared to a year ago.
Despite the December jump, the country still wound up with the weakest year for home sales in 13 years, with overall sales slumping 5 percent to 4.91 million units. The median price for a home sold in December was $168,800, down 1 percent from a year ago.
Florida's year in review was mixed. Spurred in part by the midyear tax breaks that temporarily propped up sales, a total of 170,848 homes changed hands throughout the year, up 5 percent from 2009. But the median sales price for the year fell 4 percent to $136,500.
Looking ahead, a big concern is that home prices will fall further in 2011 as banks continue to foreclose on a glut of delinquent homeowners. Many economists believe it will take years for sales to rise to a normal level of about 6 million units annually.
Times wires contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jeffmharrington.