SPRING HILL — As the backlog of available houses on the market continues to decrease, recently dipping below 3,000 for the first time in two years, the depressed Hernando County housing market is abuzz with activity and talk of a rebound.
Some say the recent frenzy is vaguely reminiscent of the early days of the housing boom four or five years ago.
"I've been asking my colleagues, 'Are you as busy as I am?' " said Pat Richards, president of Exit Success Realty in Spring Hill.
Like the old days, multiple offers are being made in certain sales.
"We run up on six, seven, eight offers now," said Laurie Pizzo, Realtor and member of the Hernando Business and Economic Development Committee.
According to the Hernando County Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service, there has been a 28 percent increase in home sales since January. Even so, not all real estate professionals in Hernando are confident that the market truly is recovering.
That's because much of the action is at the lower ends of the scale. The median price of homes sold in Hernando this year has been just over $100,000.
So far this year, the MLS reports that 55 percent of the homes sold have been foreclosures or so-called short sales, in which the property is sold for less than is owed.
Homes sold at bargain prices continue to drive the median sale price down. Housing prices have declined about 42 percent since 2006; in the last year alone, prices dropped by 25 percent, the MLS reports.
The high number of short sales and foreclosures, many brought on by the added costs of adjustable rate mortgages, are the wild cards in the mix.
These are also the homes getting multiple offers.
"The really great deals are getting snatched up," said Tina Schneegas, Realtor associate with the Gail Spada Team and Century 21 Alliance Realty of Spring Hill. "One house was on the market for two hours. The minute it hit the (multiple listing service), someone sent a fax."
For the first-time home buyer, which includes people who have not owned a home in three years, low prices and a new $8,000 federal tax incentive are providing motivation.
"If their credit is good, they can use it for a down payment," said Susan Thompson, Realtor associate at Re/Max Advantage Realty in Spring Hill.
Even with excellent credit, the process of getting a mortgage has gotten more difficult. Lenders are being pickier about whom they lend to, often inquiring much more than they have in recent memory.
"They are researching every little nook and cranny of a person," Pizzo said. "I'm getting people through. It just takes a little more time."
Local investors are also buying, especially if they have cash.
"If you can finance your property so that it's cash-flow positive, this is a fantastic time to buy long-term rental/investment properties," said Josh Hanoud, Realtor with Tropic Shores Realty in Spring Hill. "Only thing I wouldn't encourage right now is short-term flipping."
For some, the housing market seems like a safer long-term bet than the stock market.
Richard and Janis Karpinski moved to Florida after retiring from New Jersey, where he had worked as a police lieutenant.
Their daughter, Gail Stulec, a Realtor associate with the Gail Spada Team, said she knew her parents were losing money in the stock market. When a short sale she was working on fell through, she asked her parents if they were interested in the home as an investment.
"We had no intention of buying another house," Richard Karpinski said. "Then we looked at it and loved it right away."
Nationally, the number of people planning to purchase a home during the next six months is at a 26-year low, according to Bloomberg News. Home prices, at least at the national level, are expected to decline into 2010.
And one-third of homeowners are waiting for the market to stabilize before attempting to sell, according to Zillow.com, a company that provides real estate information. If true, this could flatline prices for some time to come.
In the meantime, many Hernando homeowners are electing to add to or spruce up their current digs. County permits issued for residential additions and alterations are up 37 percent since the beginning of the year.
For those unable to make the payments, sell or refinance, dreams of home ownership often come to an end.
Since 2007, more than 6,500 homes in Hernando County have been foreclosed on or are currently in foreclosure.
Many of these homes provide clues about those who purchased the last time multiple offers heated up the housing market.
"I've seen baby pictures and even school awards left behind by owners,'' said Hanoud of Tropic Shores Realty.
They stand as stark reminders that today's bargain was once someone else's dream.
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at slmarshall.sptimes@gmail.