Investors flush with cash. Cheap homes in Florida. A nasty winter up North. Put it together and it points to a positive trend for Florida's long-suffering housing market: Bargain hunters are back.
Sales of previously occupied homes in Tampa Bay jumped 24 percent in February, building on a 19 percent surge in January. Compared to a year ago, the number of homes changing hands is up 16 percent, according to figures released Monday by the Florida Realtors.
The local performance, more energized than the national picture for a change, raises hope that foreclosures continue to wind through the system at the same time that home prices have fallen enough to lure buyers back.
Since peaking in June 2006 at $239,600, the median home price in the bay area has plummeted 54 percent. The latest numbers indicated the worst may have passed and prices are stabilizing. Tampa Bay's median sales price in February was $111,100, up 1 percent from January and down 13 percent compared to a year ago.
Statewide, sales of previously occupied homes reached 13,701, up 13 percent from a year ago and up nearly 13 percent from January. Sale prices essentially remained flat over the month at $121,900. Compared to a year ago, prices are down a modest 2 percent.
Mark Vitner, a senior economist with Wells Fargo, said the state's lower prices are starting to draw attention from bargain-seeking home buyers who want to either rent homes out or fix them up and resell as prices start rising again.
"The important thing when it comes to price is that Florida has returned to its norm of having home prices well below the national median," Vitner said. "That means Florida is an affordable destination (again) to those who want to bail out of the Northeast and Midwest and move away from the snow."
The median sales price nationally fell 5.2 percent in February to $156,100, the lowest level since April 2002. But that's still 28 percent higher than the median price for a Florida house.
"Anecdotally, what you're hearing is the market has bottomed out (in Florida), and there are a lot of people looking to buy property there," said Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance, a Maryland-based industry publication.
Wealthy investors gun-shy about stock market turbulence are looking at real estate again, he said.
In a truly healthy market, Cecala said, more families would be buying houses and trading up. "But at this point we'll take anything (that) will help clear out the market."
Still, it's premature to talk about Florida's housing crisis in past tense. With hundreds of thousands of delinquent homes facing foreclosure, prices could fall dramatically if banks suddenly flooded the market with more seized homes.
• • •
Nationwide, sales were weaker in February in part due to severe winter weather across much of the country.
The National Association of Realtors said Monday that sales of previously occupied homes fell last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.88 million, down 9.6 percent from January. The pace is far below the 6 million homes a year that economists say represents a healthy market.
Realtors and economists blamed a high level of foreclosures for driving down prices.
Nearly 40 percent of the sales nationally last month were considered distressed — either foreclosures or short sales, when the seller accepts less than they owe on the mortgage.
In Florida the number of distressed sales fell significantly last month, from about 63 percent to 58 percent, the lowest level since early last fall.
But Cecala thinks the improvement was only temporary.
"We attribute it to banks pulling a bunch of (foreclosure) sales off the market due to servicing problems," he said. "There's still a huge backlog of distressed property out there. There's no way we're going to work through them anytime soon. … It's going to keep us clogged up another year or two."
Times wires contributed to this report.