Tampa Bay Realtors sold 5,000 more homes in 2009 than they did in 2008, a healing trend that helped real estate prices find some footing last year.
Single-family home sales totaled 28,617 in 2009, up 21 percent from the 23,615 homes that changed hands in 2008, Florida Realtors said.
Tampa Bay's median home price ended the year at $140,000, pretty much the level at which it was in the spring of 2009, defying the depressing effects of cheap foreclosure homes.
"Have things stabilized? I think things have stabilized. Have they bottomed out? I don't know," said Nancy Riley, broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in St. Petersburg.
Bargain-rate distressed properties, mortgage rates below 5 percent and government subsidies all helped buoy the Tampa Bay housing market last year.
Foreclosure and preforeclosure homes made up the majority of sales in scores of neighborhoods, particularly those in which real estate speculators ran rampant from 2004 to 2006. Many of the buyers of these homes paid cash.
But beware the potential economic anchors of 2010. They include another wave of foreclosures, double-digit unemployment and the expiration of the $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit by midyear.
"Activity should ramp up for another surge in the spring when buyers take advantage of the expanded tax credit, which hopefully will take us into a self-sustaining market in the second half of 2010," said Lawrence Yun, economist with the National Association of Realtors.
Florida outhustled Tampa Bay for home sales. They rose statewide from 124,168 in 2008 to 163,148 in 2009, a gain of 31 percent.
The state's median home price ended December nearly identical to Tampa Bay's at $140,400. That has altered the traditional pricing relationship in which Florida homes typically sold for about 10 percent more than Tampa Bay's.
Nationally, 4.57 million single-family homes sold in 2009, up 5 percent from a year earlier. The median price in December was $177,500.
Realtors like Riley note that the sale-squashing impact of high property taxes and insurance rates has eased since the dog days of 2007. Florida's Amendment One, which lets home buyers transfer accumulated property tax savings from their old homes to their new homes, is in full force.
Mortgage financing remains a problem. Conventional lenders typically demand 20 percent down payments — 25 percent for condo purchasers. That has forced many buyers into loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration, which requires only 31/2 percent down.
"I can guarantee you, the market will go back up. I'm just not sure when it will go back up, or how fast it will go back up," Riley said. "Business is good. But I'm working twice as hard for half the money."