As they've done for most of the past 18 months, Tampa Bay homes sales improved year over year: Sellers unloaded 2,050 homes last month vs. 1,856 in February 2009.
But healthier sales haven't stanched housing depreciation. Tampa Bay's median home price dipped about 2.5 percent, to $128,100 in February, compared with $131,400 in February 2009.
Thirteen-percent unemployment and record-high mortgage defaults could press on prices even further this year. Since their high-water mark in June 2006, Tampa Bay home prices have receded 46.5 percent, Realtors said.
For Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, the April 30 expiration of federal home buyers tax credits of $8,000 and $6,500 is critical.
"The key test for a durable recovery comes in the next few months as the tax credit deadline approaches," Yun said.
"If we see a surge in home buying comparable to last fall in the months leading up to the original tax credit deadline, then enough inventory should be absorbed to ensure a broad home price stabilization."
In Florida, home sales rose 21 percent in February, but prices drooped 7 percent year over year. The sales spurt was even greater from January to February, but that's the predictable pattern in a state that welcomes millions of winter visitors.
Places like Fort Myers/Cape Coral, Orlando and Jacksonville topped Tampa Bay for home sales. But they paid for that success with steeper home devaluation.
Across the United States, single-family home sales fell 1.4 percent from January to February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.37 million. Outside of Florida, sales suffered from harsh winter weather, Yun said.
Distressed sales characterize the Tampa Bay market. More than 15,500 local homeowners have applied for government-subsidized mortgage modifications — and thousands more will enter mediation with their lenders — but the foreclosure rate continues to climb.
At Craig Beggins' Apollo Beach realty office, a quarter of transactions are short-sale homes, those sold for less than their mortgage debt. Nonforeclosure sellers clinging to high asking prices do so at their peril.
Though the deals take months from contract to closing, 30 to 40 short sales fill Beggins' commission coffers each month. For agents, the wait for a payoff can be excruciating.
"I tell agents short sales are like a Crock-Pot. Keep throwing them in the stew and you'll have a feast in the summer," Beggins said.