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Short Florida housing recovery, or long? Depends on whom you ask

When predicting a Tampa Bay housing recovery, prognosticators generally fall into two camps.

First you have the "First In, First Out" crowd. They rightly point out that our housing decline predated most of the rest of the country's. By that logic we should recover sooner, too.

We've taken our lumps, weathered the slump, now it's time for an economic bump.

The other group could be called, "Wasting away in Margaritaville." We overimbibed, flopped onto the bar tile and will need years for the swelling to go down.

Trouble is, both camps can muster plenty of evidence to support their positions.

First In, First Out proponents point to nine months of rising home sales, thanks mostly to homesteaders and investors snapping up cheap foreclosure homes.

From January to May, even home prices here have risen a tad, or at least stopped sucking water like a capsized boat.

While year-to-year price declines are still steep — 32 percent in Hillsborough County, 20 percent in Pinellas County — what's not to like about five straight months of flat prices?

You can't spell reinflate without flat.

Home listings are excessive, but getting leaner. In Pinellas, for example, 6,910 single-family homes were for sale in May. The peak was 11,003 listings in February 2006.

But Margaritaville depressives won't be denied. About a week ago, Wachovia did its best to plunge a dagger into the hopeful hearts of the recovery crowd.

The bank's Florida Economic Outlook concluded that Tampa Bay's recession started nine months earlier than elsewhere but should last longer here.

Wachovia should know all about recessionary heartache. It's was so badly wounded by the housing bust it's now a ward of Wells Fargo Bank.

In sizing up the Tampa Bay area, Wachovia cites a 90 percent declines in new home sales, a persistent glut of condos and an economy overly sensitive to the real estate collapse.

In truth, when you ignore encouraging statistics and examine living, breathing real estate companies, the picture is still gray.

Take Metro Development Group. It's a Tampa company that gambled by buying up more than 30,000 home lots in west Florida in anticipation of a 2010 recovery. Last month the courts placed its assets in receivership.

Metro owes millions of dollars to banks like Fifth Third, Raymond James, Bank of America and our old friend Wachovia. They've been trying to foreclose on Metro, but agreed to the temporary expedient of receivership until courts sort out the cases.

Are we turning the corner? Maybe. Turning points are usually visible only with a wide-angled lens from the lofty perspective of the future.

We may be sitting atop a turning point now. But to most of us it still feels like a hard spot.

Short Florida housing recovery, or long? Depends on whom you ask 06/18/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 8:11pm]
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