Tampa Bay area home prices took one of the largest one-month tumbles in history, falling 16 percent from December to January in a flurry of foreclosure sales.
A typical home sold for $122,400 last month, a return to prices not seen since mid 2003. December's median home price was $145,700.
You can blame distressed properties for the leaden descent. Such properties, which include homes with delinquent mortgage payments, represent a third to half of sales in the region encompassing Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties.
On the plus side: The bargain prices helped rekindle buyer interest in January, at least locally. Sales climbed 17 percent for the year, from 1,342 in January 2008 to 1,573 in January 2009, according to the Florida Association of Realtors.
The low-price-equals-brisker-sales phenomenon is more pronounced in Cape Coral-Fort Myers. Sales more than doubled in January. But it came at the cost of a 59 percent collapse in prices in the January-to-January period.
"Right now, unfortunately, foreclosures are about the only game in town," St. Petersburg Realtor Jerry Sigler said. "If you've got a foreclosure to pick from, why go to a retail property?"
Sigler handles listings for about 100 homes confiscated by the bank. More than a third are under contract. A Tampa auction of bank-owned homes earlier this month found bidders for 131 of 176 homes. The average price worked out to $77,000 per home.
So influential have foreclosures been in setting the market that financially stable sellers feel compelled to cut prices. Deborah Farmer, head of Tampa's Star Light Realty, recently bought a house with 180 feet of lakefront for $589,000. In a normal market it could have sold for $800,000, she said.
In the Tampa Bay area, prices have come down almost 50 percent from the peak in June 2006. About 3,442 homes sold that month locally.
"I think there's a lot of fear," Farmer said. "Sellers think, 'I've got equity in my home, and I'd better get out when the getting's good.' "
It's not just happening in Florida. The National Association of Realtors reported that 45 percent of sales across the nation in January involved distressed properties. The amount varied from 80 percent in Santa Ana, Calif., to below 20 percent in Chicago.
Nationally, existing home sales dropped 7.6 percent from January last year, while the U.S. median home price slid almost 15 percent to $170,300.
"Buyers will continue to have an edge over sellers for the foreseeable future," Realtors' chief economist Lawrence Yun said.
Though fear of recession and joblessness is playing on consumer confidence, the housing market's recently gotten several adrenalin shots.
Last's week's economic stimulus plan included a new $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers who purchase between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 1, 2009. The government defines a first-time home buyer as someone who hasn't owned a principal residence in the previous three years. Unlike last year's $7,500 tax credit, the $8,000 credit doesn't have to be paid back.
Another attraction for buyers: Mortgage rates hover around 5.2 percent, among the lowest in decades. But banks have been stingy with terms, burned by hundreds of billions of dollars in losses from questionable loans.
Though she has an 813 credit score, Farmer had to scrape up a 50 percent down payment on the lake house, a far cry from the 100 percent financing of 2005.
As a small business owner with variable income, she couldn't provide tax forms to qualify for better terms.
"Banks have to loosen up," she said. "It's getting ridiculous."