Tampa Bay's existing home sales skyrocketed in March to levels not seen in nearly five years.
Maybe even better news for homeowners is that average sale prices also rose last month in several area counties.
Sales of previously occupied homes in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties jumped nearly 32 percent, from 3,258 in February to 4,296 in March.
The sales increase and price jumps raise hope that the housing market is healing from the wounds left by a faltering economy and a deluge of foreclosures.
The St. Petersburg Times analyzed figures from the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors and the Pinellas Realtor Organization prior to statewide and national numbers being released today.
No single factor drove sales and prices in March — it was more of a mix of reasons, according to economists and real estate experts.
"It's good news," said Mark Vitner, a senior economist with Wells Fargo. "It's a further indicator that the worst may be over. The bay area economy is modestly improving."
Vitner credited the surge to low prices and interest rates, an improving economy and investors searching for bargains. He stressed the housing market is a long way from fully recovering and that some homeowners may still have a hard time selling at the current prices.
Vitner closely tracks Florida's economy and expected the market to hit bottom this summer. His outlook may change given the recent housing news.
"We're either at or very close to the bottom of the market," he said. "It would be crazy to wait for the last nickel to fall."
The combined March sales in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties even eclipsed the sales in June 2010, when an $8,000 federal tax credit created a surge in sales, only to be followed by months of sluggish activity.
The last month with combined sales higher than March was June 2006, when 4,417 homes sold.
Total sales in the three counties are even up more than 14 percent compared to March 2010. The bulk of the increased sales occurred in homes priced less than $200,000.
The average sales price jumped from $149,500 to $165,700 in Pinellas from February to March and $135,376 to $140,360 in Hillsborough and from $106,000 to $132,000 in Pasco.
March is traditionally the start of the spring buying season. But real estate agents said an influx of cheap homes and severe weather in Northern and Midwestern states has helped drive bay area sales.
Northerners have watched Florida prices spiral downward and are escaping the never-ending snow by buying second homes in the Sunshine State.
"People realize that prices aren't going to drop forever," said Nick Fraser, owner of Remax All Star in Madeira Beach. "People are ready to make a move. Consumer confidence is a lot higher."
Another possible reason for more sales is that buyers are over the fear of buying foreclosed homes, said University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith.
But he cautioned that several months of rising sales and prices would better measure the housing market. But a dual increase, in the same month is good, he said.
"It sure beats a month's decrease," Snaith said. "Any increase is welcome. That's very good news."
Another positive sign tucked in the sales figures: The housing inventory is at or near a six-month supply, meaning it would take about six months to sell all the inventory that is currently on the market. The lower the supply the more robust the market. It peaked in Hillsborough at 25 months in January 2008 and at 18 months in Pinellas in March 2007.
In a typical market, many homeowners buy houses and then trade up when they need more space, amenities or want to live in a better neighborhood.
If that practice continues in the current market, the recent sale of so many lower-priced homes will eventually trigger the sales of higher-priced homes, experts said.
The region's lower prices are also drawing attention from bargain-seekers who want either to rent homes out or fix them up and resell as prices start rising again.
Andrew Duncan, leader of the Duncan Duo & Associates at Keller Williams Realty in Tampa, said many buyers are entering into bidding wars on homes priced lower than $200,000.
"It's pretty phenomenal," he said about the sales. "It's moving in the right direction toward a healthy and balanced real estate market."
First-time home buyers, he said, are also fueling higher sales.
"It's cheaper to buy the same house that you're currently renting," he said. "That's a sign that the worst has passed."
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markapuente.