Tampa Bay home prices surged 14.4 percent in December for the biggest year-over-year gain of any major metro area in Florida.Continuing a trend that never slacked during the year, prices rose while the total number of sales lagged behind.For 2016 as a whole, "the key word was 'low' — as in, inventory levels,'' said Charles Richardson, regional senior vice president for Coldwell Banker. "Buyers showed strong interest and sales were up for the year versus 2015, but there simply weren't enough homes available on the market to meet demand.''Throughout 2016, that low supply served to drive up the prices for single-family homes, which make up by far the biggest share of the residential market.Ron Balseiro, a veteran Tampa Bay appraiser, says the tight supply is spurring many buyers to pay what he calls a "premium.''"My assessment is values have gone up a little bit too fast too quick,'' Balseiro said Tuesday. In south Hillsborough and south Pasco, where hundreds of new houses are being built, homes he appraised a year ago for $220,000 are now selling for $250,000."I think the interest rate is the key,'' Balseiro said. "If the interest rates go up too high or they go up too quick, you have some people who will jump in and go higher (on price). But once that settles in at a higher rate, potential buyers are going to have a harder time qualifying so builders might have to lower their prices.''In December, Pinellas showed the biggest year-over-year jump in single-family prices, up 17.6 percent to a median of $222,250. Next was Pasco, up 12.8 percent to $191,750; Hernando, up 9.5 percent to $139,900; and Hillsborough, up 9.1 percent to $232,575.Bay area condos and townhomes did even better, soaring 17 percent to a median of $149,500.One notable statistic about 2016 bay area sales: 50 percent of the listings sold in the first 30 days.While that indicates demand is strong, it also shows that "sellers are being realistic in their pricing,'' Richardson said.As of the end of 2016, the bay area had just a 2.9-month supply of homes for sale. A six-month inventory — meaning the time it would take to sell everything currently available — is considered a "balanced'' market that favors neither buyers nor sellers.Richardson said two factors contributed to the low inventory of homes."The housing bubble burst of 2008 is still fresh on the minds of some homeowners, who remain reluctant to list their homes for sale,'' he said. "Additionally, the presidential election consumed people's attention and created a sense of uncertainty, causing some to temporarily delay any real estate transactions, though there was a small surge in activity when it was over.''Hillsborough had December's top sale with a five-bedroom, five-bath house on Davis Islands going for $3.95 million. Purchased by Tampa Bay Lightning player Victor Hedman, it was also among the 25 most expensive bay area homes sold last year.In Pinellas, the top price paid was just over $2.9 million for a penthouse at 400 Beach Drive in downtown St. Petersburg. Other top sales were $800,000 for a newly built home in the Wesley Chapel area of Pasco, and $785,000 for a Brooksville home on 35 acres in Hernando.For December, Tampa Bay's 14.4 percent increase in the median price was several percentage points higher than for the Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville areas.Statewide, median home prices rose 9.2 percent year over year.Nationally, sales of existing homes closed out 2016 as the best year in a decade, even as sales declined in December as the result of ongoing affordability issues and historically low supply levels, according to the National Association of Realtors.The median price nationally for all housing types in December was $232,200, up 4 percent from December 2015. December's price increase marks the 58th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.