Florida's existing home sales surged in March, recording the single biggest month since late 2005.
Sales of condos and homes jumped 36 percent from February to March, surpassing the national rise of 3.7 percent, according to figures from the Florida Realtors and the National Association of Realtors. Statewide, existing sales are up 15.8 percent from March 2010.
The news comes on the heels of the Times reporting Wednesday that Tampa Bay's existing sales in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties jumped nearly 32 percent, from 3,258 in February to 4,296 in March.
The statewide jump raises hope that Florida's housing market is distancing itself from the battered economy and foreclosure crisis in recent years.
"It's a good thing to see that transactions are going up," said University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith. "It's an indicator of a stronger economy."
Seventeen Florida regions reported higher sales last month, and it's the fourth consecutive month that statewide sales have exceeded the same month in the prior year.
Although median sale prices of homes and condos are still down from March 2010 in Tampa Bay and the state, the prices increased from February.
Snaith cautioned that sales and median prices need to rise for several months, if not quarters, and new jobs need to be added before the housing market can fully recover.
Nationally, the 3.7 percent sales increase shows that the housing market is rebounding, said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors.
"Existing home sales have risen in six of the past eight months, so we're clearly on a recovery path," he said.
Cash and investors are dominating the real estate market in the United States.
Cash accounted for a record share of 35 percent of sales in March, up from 33 percent in February. Investors logged 22 percent of sales in March, up 3 percent from February, the group said.
The cash rates are even higher in several bay area counties. So far in 2011, 59 percent of sales in Pasco were made with cash. Pinellas logged 66 percent.
The market, Yun said, needs a boost from lenders.
"Sales would be notably stronger if mortgage lending would return to the normal, safe standards that were in place a decade ago," he said, "before the loose lending practices that created the unprecedented boom and bust cycle."
In Florida, single-family sales jumped 35 percent from February to March, with a median sales price of $126,300.
Last month's sales also comfortably exceeded March 2010 sales, surging by 12 percent. The biggest increase occurred in Miami, where sales rose 59 percent from 649 in March 2010 to 1,031 last month.
Condo sales exploded across the state, too. Sales rose 39 percent from 6,984 in February to 9,703 in March, and 24 percent from March 2010.
March is traditionally the start of the spring buying season, but real estate agents said severe weather and an influx of cheap homes are driving Northerners back to Florida.
The worst of the real estate downfall may have passed, experts said.
The increases are welcome news for real estate agents who have battled slumping sales and a market saturated with distressed homes.
After the housing market imploded, homes typically sat on the market for months, if not years, and sold at deteriorating prices. That's no longer the case for properly priced homes, Realtors said.
Craig Beggins, owner of Century 21 Beggins Enterprises in Apollo Beach, stressed that the market is not normal and hopes the inventory declines more in the coming months.
''The distressed properties are still a problem," he said, "but I have tons of optimism."
Many agents' workloads started increasing in January, said Rae Catanese of Tropical Prudential Realty in South Tampa.
But one of her biggest fears, she said, is that lenders will continue to turn borrowers away. She and her two business partners have been swamped with buyers from the North, Midwest and abroad looking for bargains.
She added: "Right now, we are crazy busy."
Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markapuente.