TAMPA — When Charles Dowman, a hydrogeologist moving from San Francisco, began house-hunting with his wife and two children, he sought a charming, craftsman-style home in South Tampa and didn't mind a fixer-upper.
But after looking, and missing out on, about 35 houses, Dowman found "it was hard to find something before it got gobbled up by everyone else. It went fast." On Christmas week, the family decided on a home that was about 50 years newer — and $100,000 more than expected.
Dowman's ordeal showcases a number of local housing trends — higher prices and pinched inventory, which has led to a mini boom in new home building.
Tampa Bay home prices have climbed recently to their highest point in two years. Local prices in November rose nearly 7 percent over the year before, and 5.5 percent in 20 of the country's major cities, according to Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller home price indices released Tuesday.
In Tampa Bay, a typical home sold in November for $145,000, Multiple Listing Service data show. That's well off the median price above $240,000 at the peak of the boom in 2006, but also off the bottom of about $110,000 in 2011.
Steady job growth and rock-bottom mortgage rates have emboldened demand among home buyers and investors, whose battles over tightening supplies have helped to drive up prices.
Buyers, real estate agent Liane Jamason said, "are coming up against very limited inventory and having to pay over asking price in order to even have a shot at succeeding due to the number of cash buyers and investors in the market."
Foreclosures and mortgage debt still dog the local market: About one out of eight Tampa Bay home loans in November was at least 90 days late on payments, research firm CoreLogic said in a report Tuesday.
But that has not stopped Tampa Bay and several other metropolitan areas hard hit by the housing bust from seeing a solid resurgence in prices.
Foreclosure capitals Detroit, Las Vegas and Phoenix posted three of the four largest year-over-year gains, with prices in Phoenix sailing upward nearly 23 percent.
"The Sun Belt, which bore the brunt of the housing collapse," the Case-Shiller report stated, "is back in a leadership position."
Rising prices are drawing more sellers to the market, agents said, but "underwater" homeowners who owe more than their homes are worth remain reluctant to sell, squeezing for-sale supplies.
Home builders responded by starting construction on more than 5,000 homes in the Tampa Bay area last year, a 28 percent increase over 2011, construction data firm Metrostudy said Tuesday. The uptick comes after several years of construction silence. The firm predicts local home starts will continue climbing through 2013, increasing 7 to 20 percent.
Though homes prices and building activity are still a shadow of their presence during the boom, real estate experts say a continuing improvement in prices is what the market needs to recover.
But where the market goes from here remains up for debate. Robert J. Shiller, who helped create the Case-Shiller index, wrote in the New York Times on Sunday, "The unfortunate truth is that the tea leaves don't clearly suggest any particular path for prices, either up or down."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]