Florida home sales rose 34 percent in September compared with a year earlier, but Tampa Bay didn't share in that upsurge.
Tampa Bay Realtors reported a year-over-year sales increase of only 11 percent, far below sales spurts of 41 percent in Orlando and 42 percent in Sarasota.
Tampa Bay's underperformance left Realtors scurrying for answers. Earlier in the year, economists predicted the Nov. 30 deadline to use an $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit would rev up sales in late summer and fall.
About 2,410 homes sold in September in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties. A year earlier, 2,174 homes changed hands.
Pinellas single-family home sales matched the state average, but the bay area's performance was dragged down by below-average activity in the other counties. But even Pinellas buyers were growing scarcer in September.
"We've heard appraisals didn't come in, banks dragged their feet too long and buyers got tired of waiting as reasons for the decline," the Pinellas Realtor Organization's Ann Guiberson said in a statement.
She could be channeling St. Petersburg Realtor Frank Malowany.
A specialist in the sale of million-dollar homes with Smith & Associates Real Estate, he grits his teeth as banks reject seven-figure, all-cash purchase offers for waterfront mansions facing foreclosure. What's worse, banks can take three to six months to decide.
"Nothing's smooth. If you're dying in a bed with cancer maybe they'll talk to you. Even then it's hard," Malowany said. "And we're talking cash buyers."
Nationally, home sales rose 9.2 percent from a year earlier, an increase that won guarded praise from the National Association of Realtors.
"Much of the momentum is from people responding to the first-time buyer tax credit, which is freeing many sellers to make a trade and buy another home," said Lawrence Yun, economist with the national Realtor group.
Contrary to what Yun said, economists reported this week that the credit hasn't had a desired ripple effect by stimulating move-up home purchases.
Tampa Bay's median home price dipped nearly 5 percent from August to September, from $144,600 to $137,800. But prices have floated in a narrow range on both sides of $140,000 for most of this year, leading some to call a home price bottom.
A gathering of housing industry economists in Washington this week predicted that national home prices — as well as those in Tampa Bay — would drop a bit further as another wave of foreclosure homes enters the market over the next six to eight months.
Robert Denk, a forecaster with the National Association of Home Builders, rated Florida as one of the most overbuilt markets in the country and described a "long road back to normal."
Even September home prices might not tell buyers and sellers what's happening on the ground today, said Amy Crews Cutts, economist with government-backed mortgage lender Freddie Mac.
That's because people who closed on homes in September probably signed purchase contracts in July and August. That makes it hard, in a declining market, to know what a home's worth in October, she said.
If there has been one area of improvement, it has been in the number of surplus homes on the market.
The inventory of homes for sale in and around Tampa — 14,433 — declined to its lowest level since spring 2006. In Pinellas, about 12,773 homes were listed for sale in September, down 36 percent from the 20,053 homes for sale a year earlier.
"We still have over 6,000 single-family listings on the market, when 3,000 to 4,000 would indicate a more balanced market as we had from 2001 through 2003," Guiberson said.
James Thorner can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3313.