Joe Varner couldn't buy a luxury home in South Tampa until he sold his plush spread in Ocala.
He listed the 8,000-square-foot Ocala home in the summer of 2009 for $1.8 million. He expected the sale to take years. Then he lowered the price. The home sold in July for $1.2 million.
A month later, he bought a five-bedroom home in Tampa for $1.25 million. The rather quick turnaround in a once-frozen high-end market surprised him.
"We were pleased," the 39-year-old said. "We felt very, very fortunate."
The sales of million-dollar-plus homes and condos aren't skyrocketing, but they are selling again at a discount. Sales are up 22 percent in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, according to the Pinellas Realtor Organization. Through October, 192 have sold, compared with 157 for the same period last year.
Real estate professionals credit the improving economy and stock market, price slashing and low interest rates for the uptick in sales. High-end buyers have plenty of choices. Currently, more than 400 homes and condos are selling at $1 million or more in the bay area.
John Rymer, president of Rymer Strategies, a Tampa real estate advisory and research company, said the crash of the real estate market has created a 50-month supply of $1 million homes instead of the typical 17-month supply.
But prices in Florida's high-end market aren't likely to drop much more, some industry experts say.
"In general, prices have stabilized," Rymer said. "It's the bottom here."
Buyers flush with cash are getting the best deals and are driving hard bargains because many sellers have few options if they want to sell the houses, he said.
"It depends on a sellers' willingness to take a loss," Rymer said.
The time might be ripe if you have a bundle of cash to snag an opulent home. Now that the price drop has eased, said Florida Realtors president Wendell Davis, "in pockets of the market, things are picking up."
Frank Malowany, a St. Petersburg real estate agent who specializes in higher-priced waterfront property, said that wealthy buyers have returned to the luxury market and are also coming from outside the region.
"They come here with the expectation of a steal and are getting a deal," he said.
He cautioned that many plush homes are still overpriced, as sellers haven't realized they can no longer get top dollar. But many buyers, he said, have the cash for a lavish home and have patiently waited for the best bargain.
Malowany uses a nonscientific barometer to gauge the area's luxury market. If homes sell in St. Petersburg's Snell Isle, "it shows the market is moving," he said.
Ten recent homes sales in that neighborhood averaged about $1.6 million each.
For example, a waterfront home on Brightwaters Boulevard NE was originally listed for $2.25 million. The five-bedroom home sold in October for $1.65 million.
Bob Glaser, head of Smith & Associates, a seller of high-end homes, said his agents' sales have increased 10 percent this year. So far, they have sold 52 houses listed at $1 million or higher.
Buyers have plenty of options for homes priced between $1 million and $2 million. Although sellers are lowering prices, Glaser said two factors still rule.
"It goes back to location and good price," he said.
Varner, the South Tampa homeowner, agreed. He avoided rural estates in favor of a 5,200-square-foot home near the water. It was originally listed at $1.4 million. He offered the seller $1.25 million.
"We didn't have to haggle that much," he said. "That was it. They took it."
One home that might take some haggling to sell is the 29,000-square-foot estate owned by Tampa gold dealer Mark Yaffe. The Avila spread is one of the biggest in the area and is modeled after a 17th century British royal palace.
The house listed for $25 million in 2008. The nearly 6 acre estate is now on the market for $17.5 million.
It is still for sale.
Mark Puente can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.