For five years, I dreamed of escaping snowy winters and gloomy skies for the sunshine of St. Petersburg.
Then, after chasing criminals and investigating corrupt public officials in Cleveland, this newspaper offered me a chance to cover the real estate market.
I read the national publications; I watched the television reports. The Sunshine State was at the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis. Florida was ripe for buyers, and, I assumed, for renters, too, given all the empty homes.
My wife and I wanted to rent for a year to get to know the area before buying. We anticipated a market flush with rentals going for $1,000 to $1,500 a month.
I was wrong.
This buyers' market, it turns out, is hell for renters like us, an observation confirmed by several local real estate pros.
I didn't seek a waterfront estate or a McMansion. An apartment or condo wouldn't work with two dogs. I could live anywhere. Schools were not an issue.
Immediately, I found dilapidated and dirty homes with broken doors and cracked windows. Busted cupboards. Junk piles in yards. Homes lacking carpet or tile. I didn't find the shiny and clean homes advertised online.
As Realtors highlighted the coziness of the homes, I wondered how they made the pitches with straight faces. My wife sobbed. A nightmare simmered.
Countless Realtors didn't return calls. Then I learned why. The area is bloated with renters.
The foreclosure epidemic has forced many former homeowners to find lower-priced rental homes. And low interest rates and bargain prices have enabled investors and first-time buyers to gobble up homes priced from $120,000 to $150,000, eliminating potential rental properties.
A buyers' market doesn't bode well for renters, said Dave Kushner, head of Bay Area Property Management in Tampa. The market, he said, lacks houses listed around $1,250, the "cream of the crop" price here.
"You got caught in bad timing," Kushner said. "There's a lot of competition."
He described the best times to find rental homes: The beginning and end of the year, the final months of summer and when schools break for summer. That's my luck. I missed those periods.
Kushner's company manages 300 rental homes and currently less than 5 percent are vacant. He acknowledged that hundreds of rental homes are in disarray.
Hordes of owners have exhausted their savings and can't make repairs or improvements until tenants provide security deposits and initial rent payments, he said.
The number of renters will swell as foreclosures increase, Kushner predicted.
"This is a messed-up time in the rental market," he said.
Bradenton resident Melissa McMurtry spent three months looking for a condo in downtown St. Petersburg. She scoured the Internet every day for something she liked priced below $1,400 a month.
She said it was "really hard to find" one in that price range and enlisted several Realtors to help.
"That was an experience," McMurtry said. "We got stood up a lot."
If McMurtry or I wanted to buy right now, options would be endless. The market is geared for buyers, confirmed Poul Hornsleth of R.W. Caldwell Realty in Gulfport. The fourth-generation company manages more than 300 rental properties. Very few are vacant, and they rent quickly, Hornsleth said.
Investors are devouring homes in short sales and foreclosures, Hornsleth said, adding: "It is the best buyers' market in real estate."
In the 11th hour, we found a nice three-bedroom home with a fenced yard in St. Petersburg's Shore Acres neighborhood. The property manager agreed to list the house an hour before we toured it.
I move in today, but not before getting a first-hand education in the local real estate market.
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459.