Department stores use the tactic all the time: attract bargain hunters with promises of soon-to-end sales.
The same thing happened in November with the government's $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers.
As the real estate community spread the word that the subsidy would expire after Nov. 30, Tampa Bay home buyers reacted by lifting single-family home sales 34 percent.
House hunting generally tapers off as the holidays approach. But the 2,282 sales last month nearly matched those in November 2006, the last boom year for the Tampa Bay housing market.
Condominiums, a particular sore spot, performed even greater feats in November.
Condo sales surged 80 percent around Tampa Bay, rising from 370 in November 2008 to 665 in November 2009. In Orlando, banks dumped so many cheap foreclosure condos that sales quadrupled year over year.
Joel Cantor, whose Signature Place condo tower overlooks the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront, racked up 13 closings in November. Most of Cantor's buyers laid down deposits of at least 20 percent.
"Prices have got as low as probably they're going to go. We took our medicine right away last summer. We cut prices across the board. We cut them deep," Cantor said. "Couple that with low interest rates. Most buyers are getting rates of 4.75 percent."
The typical Tampa Bay single-family home sold for $139,100 in November. The median condo price was $104,500. Prices stopped sliding in early 2009 and have hovered in a narrow range most of the year.
"For 15 months now, statewide sales of existing single-family homes in Florida have increased each month compared to the year-ago figures," Florida Realtors president Cynthia Shelton said. "The continued, gradual absorption of housing inventory will help stabilize home prices."
Other Realtors aren't so sure. St. Petersburg's Steve Capen, who works for Keller Williams Realty, suspects heavy foreclosure volume will hammer the market again. The impact will be greatest on mid- and high-priced homes, he said.
"I think we're going to take another dip in 2010. You look at the shadow inventory — it's huge," Capen said. "You see more of those strategic defaulters. They can afford their mortgages, but they'd rather walk away."
Florida's home sales surpassed Tampa Bay's. Across the state, sales, excluding condos, rose 61 percent, from 8,694 in November 2008 to 14,026 last month. State home prices gave back 12 percent year over year.
Nationally, home sales surged a record 44 percent year over year. Sales reached their highest level in nearly three years, the National Association of Realtors said. The median sales price was $172,600, down 4.3 percent from a year earlier.
"Keep in mind that housing had been underperforming over most of the past year," said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun. "The tax credit is helping unleash pent-up demand from a large pool of financially qualified renters."
Capen recently sold a preforeclosure home, at a loss to the bank, for $85,000. The buyer's house payment was a tad above $700 per month. And he was looking forward to the $8,000 refund next year from the tax credit.
"I don't think low-end homes like that will go down much more," Capen said.
But the housing landscape remains scarred. Tampa Bay home builders continue to compete against the housing glut they helped create. In a sobering report released this week by the University of Central Florida, economist Sean Snaith predicted that the state's construction sector wouldn't return to 2006 peak employment for two decades.
Government freebies will help the housing market along for the first half of 2010. Congress extended the tax credit to cover home contracts signed through April 30.
But the triple threat of 12.3 percent Tampa Bay unemployment, a probable rise in interest rates and bottomless foreclosures cloud the housing forecast for 2010.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. James Thorner can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3313.