TAMPA — Stephanie Toland thought buying a home would be much like it was when she did it 10 years ago: low prices, easy pickings and no need to rush or compete.
What she found was a chaotic market of rapid deals and bidding wars. After submitting three offers for a South Tampa home and offering more than the listing price, Toland and her fiance finally signed the contract to buy.
"Maybe I was living in a fantasy world," she said. "You hear it's a buyers' market, but it really didn't feel like it."
She's not dreaming. More Tampa Bay homes sold last month than have in nearly seven years, as moneyed investors sparred with rushing homebuyers over a scant for-sale supply, My Florida Regional Multiple Listing Service data show.
The typical home sold for $150,000 last month, a 22 percent climb since March 2012, and at a much brisker pace. The average seller waited only a month to secure a contract, and less than three months to close on the deal.
In a housing market still pocked by foreclosures, the spirited March marked a booming start to the spring selling season and bolstered hopes that the market is rebounding.
"We broke every record we'd ever set" last month, said Andrew Duncan, a real estate broker with Duncan Duo & Associates who began selling real estate in 2005. "It's literally like the market has been dropped on its face. Everything has changed."
More than 3,100 homes sold in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and parts of Hernando counties last month, a 7 percent jump over last March and the busiest month since May 2006, MLS data show.
And two-thirds of those homes were sold the old-fashioned way, untarnished by foreclosure. Conventional sales accounted for 20 percent more of all agents' local sales than they did in March 2011, improving prices and stabilizing a market long shaken by debt and distress.
Scrawny inventories have made agents pickier about buyers but voracious for listings. Some said they have ramped up cold calls and random mailings to entice homeowners to sell.
"Buyers and sellers still think the market is bad, but we have buyers out there who can't find a home and sellers who have no idea they have equity again," Keller Williams Realty St. Petersburg broker Rachel Sartain said. "Some of those people had been holding off to put their home on the market, and they are finally coming out."
In Hillsborough County, the number of homes for sale sunk from more than 18,000 this time in 2009 to just over 6,000 this year, Greater Tampa Association of Realtors data show. Those homes would sell out in four months if no others were added, an inventory far lower than the six-month supply of a typical healthy market.
Half of the Tampa Bay home sales last month were bought with cash, an indication that investors big and small continue to eat away at inventories, MLS data show. Private-equity firms such as the Blackstone Group have gobbled up hundreds of millions of dollars of homes to fix up and rent, joining a market dominated by mom-and-pop landlords.
The pack is joined by investors from parts of Europe, China and Canada looking for vacation and rental homes while prices are low, with agents saying some have even chartered tour buses to scout neighborhoods. On Sunday, one of Canada's biggest newspapers, the Globe and Mail, ran a call to action headlined, "Hey aspiring snowbirds: The Florida housing market could be rebounding."
But the market still has a long way to climb to make up for its dive off the peak, when the typical home sold in June 2006 for $245,000.
Foreclosure filings were sent to one in 100 local homes over the last three months, giving Tampa Bay the fifth-highest foreclosure rate in the country, RealtyTrac data released Thursday show.
And clogged courts and legal delays have drawn out the typical Florida foreclosure to 30 months long, bogging down recovery. Many cases go even slower: A Carrollwood home up for auction this week entered foreclosure in 2004, a staggering 100 months ago.
With builders breaking ground on new homes and buyers growing more confident in the economy, agents said they're optimistic the market has turned a corner since the crash.
"People were selling out of fear in recent years," because they couldn't pay their mortgage or their values had plunged, Duncan said. Now, with the market's upward momentum, "it's motivating people to not be as scared to take action."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]