Tampa Bay's existing home sales surged 19 percent last month from a year ago, climbing faster than the state's and the nation's.
Statewide, the sales jumped 14 percent compared to the previous January.
But the uptick provided no reprieve from the onslaught of falling prices. The median sales price sank in the bay area to $110,000 from $126,100 in December, according to the latest housing data released Wednesday by Florida Realtors.
From December to January, sales dropped 22 percent in the Sunshine State. Closings in the bay area dropped nearly 30 percent in the same period, which isn't surprising as January is typically the slowest month for finalizing deals.
Craig Beggins, owner of Century 21 Beggins Enterprises in Apollo Beach, said the pace is exploding. He expects the burst to last through at least June. "We're on fire," he said. "It's a very positive sign. The good stuff is moving and getting multiple offers."
Florida's median sales price for existing homes last month dropped 7 percent from $131,000 to $122,200. Real estate experts cite the high number of foreclosures and distressed properties as the biggest factor driving prices down. The homes are priced much lower than traditional sales.
A full recovery is a long way off, based on the latest figures, said economist Scott Brown of Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg. He cautioned that the falling sales prices could encourage even more people to walk away from their homes if they are underwater on their mortgages.
Nationally, sales of existing homes jumped 2.7 percent, the highest level in eight months and the third consecutive monthly increase, according to the National Association of Realtors. This is the first time in seven months that sales activity was higher than a year earlier.
The improvement is good but could be better, said Lawrence Yun, the National Association of Realtors' chief economist.
"The uptrend in home sales is consistent with improvements in the economy and jobs, which are helping boost consumer confidence," he said.
Another positive sign: The national housing inventory dropped from an 8.2-month supply in December to a 7.6-month supply in January. A healthy inventory supply would be closer to six months.
Despite the mixed results, Realtors are seeing signs of improvement.
Rae Catanese of Prudential Tropical Realty said Northerners are scouring the bay area for the best deal on a second home, even if they aren't ready to retire. "They want to buy now," she said. "That's where they're putting their money now. They have cash."
Sue Paskert of Courter Realty in Tampa agreed.
"It seems like people are coming forward," Paskert said. "2011 might be the year we see an improvement."
Mark Puente can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markapuente.