The latest home sales figures showed an interesting anomaly: While prices continue to plummet, the home sales decline in the Tampa Bay area was less than half the state average.
What seems to be swaying the market is a rash of short sales, the practice of dumping a home on the market for less than the outstanding loan balance. Realtors says short sales contribute not just to the region's better-than-average sales, but to its worse-than-average price declines.
"I've got 70 or 80 short sale listings now. Maybe more. Twenty percent of them have multiple offers," said Craig Beggins of Century 21 Beggins Enterprises in southeast Hillsborough.
Jim Knetsch of RE/MAX Realty Associates in Carrollwood said, "Some of the best bargains right now are short sales. In many of the communities in central Pasco, I'm guessing half the properties or more are truly in short sale territory."
Existing home sales in Florida slipped 26 percent in March over the same month a year earlier, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. It said 9,142 homes were sold last month, compared with 12,356 in March 2007. State home prices were off 15 percent during the same period, from $242,800 to $205,600.
By comparison, the Tampa metro area reported an 11 percent decline in home sales, from 1,250 in March 2007 to 1,107 last month. Prices dropped 18 percent, from $219,800 a year ago to about $180,500 today.
Local totals were skewed for March. That's because Realtors from Pinellas County and west Pasco County failed to report numbers to the Florida association. They blamed complications from a new computer system.
Noteworthy in the March sales statistics was how the real estate slump has spread to what had been relatively immune markets outside the major metro areas. Miami, with its 56 percent home sales decline, was the top loser. But places like Ocala, Pensacola and Gainesville also had worse-than-average declines.
Nationally, Realtors said sales of existing single-family homes dropped 18.4 percent in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.93-million units. The median price of a home sold last month was $198,200, a decline of 8.3 percent from a year ago.
Tampa area Realtors are spotting tentative signs of life in their businesses. Beggins' agency, based in Apollo Beach, reported 114 sales in March, almost double the monthly sales late last fall.
Knetsch is banking on further activity this spring, as lenders sign off on short sales rather than press their claims all the way to foreclosure court.
"What people have to realize is that January and February were two of the slowest individual months since at least January 2003," Knetsch said. "Hopefully we've survived the worst of the market."
James Thorner can be reached at email@example.com.