The seeds of an eventual Tampa Bay area housing recovery could lurk in an April report that showed home sales rising for the eighth consecutive month.
After two years of nearly incessant monthly depreciation, home prices have stabilized in the past four months. The January-to-April pricing trend has people wondering if a real estate market bottom is finally solidifying.
The median sales price of a single-family home in the Tampa Bay area stood at $135,200 in April. It had been as low as $122,400 in January and as high as $135,800 in March. But the month-by-month price plunges of 2008 appear to have ceased.
Realtor Phyllis Crosby, a 30-year industry veteran who works for RE/MAX ACR Elite Group in Tampa, isn't surprised. She's observed a returning tide of investors attracted by low-priced foreclosure homes. In fact, investors, including consortiums of bargain seekers, account for about half of sales.
"Investors are better educated, they're using the Internet, going to real estate auctions, calling Realtors, getting lists of bank-owned properties," Crosby said.
They're also getting into bidding wars. In the past few months, investors have flocked to homes considered untouchable a year ago. Just this week, one of Crosby's clients agreed to pay $3,000 over the $90,000 asking price for a foreclosure house. He was outbid by several other would-be homeowners.
"Prices can't keep falling forever," Crosby said. "What's it going to go to? $29.95? Are we going to buy homes at Wal-Mart?"
Despite the respite in home depreciation, the year-over-year declines remain a tender spot. April's median home price of $135,200 represented a 23 percent drop from last year and a 43.6 percent drop from the $239,600 peak in June 2006.
Bank-owned sales have weighed like an anvil on the market. In Pinellas County, homes repossessed by banks sold for $70,050 in April, less than half of the proceeds of conventional home sales, the Pinellas Realtor Organization said.
That's helped stimulate sales, however. In every month since August, Tampa Bay area home sellers have closed more deals than they had a year earlier.
Single-family home sales in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties totaled 2,326 in April, up from 2,087 in April 2008, according to the Florida Association of Realtors.
Tampa Bay outperformed the rest of Florida, at least in terms of pricing. Fort Myers-Cape Coral suffered a 57 percent plunge in the past year. A typical Cape Coral home sold for $85,500, the lowest among the state's 19 metro areas.
Orlando's sales rose 38 percent year to year, nearly triple Tampa's sales increase, but in compensation prices fell 34 percent over that period.
Most economists tracking the housing market predict an L-shaped recovery in Florida and other states where housing supply outstripped demand. In other words, prices will crawl along the bottom for months or even years before appreciating again.
And the threat of further foreclosures still hovers over Tampa Bay and Florida, exacerbated by a local unemployment rate that's topped 10 percent locally.
"Because foreclosed properties will likely be released into the market over the rest of year, it is critical that distressed homes be quickly cleared from the market," said Lawrence Yun, an economist with the National Association of Realtors.
"Fortunately, home buyers are being attracted to deeply discounted prices and are bidding up many foreclosed listings, particularly in California, Nevada, and Florida."
James Thorner can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3313.