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Home sales drop, prices climb

Home sales have plunged and inventories have skyrocketed, but so far Tampa Bay housing prices are holding up, according to statistics state and national Realtors' groups released Monday.

Nationally, the median sale price for an existing home fell 1.7 percent in August, the first year-over-year drop in a decade. But in the Tampa Bay area, the median price of a single-family home was $237,800 in August, 10 percent more than a year ago and even up slightly from July.

"Everybody is trying to hold prices in line," said Steve Johnston, chief executive of Home Discovery, a Tampa-based real estate company.

Not that it's easy.

Falling sales have produced a record glut of homes on the market. In the Tampa Bay area, there were more than three times as many active listings in August as there were a year ago. Monthly absorption rates (sales divided by listings) were around 50 percent in August 2005, but had fallen to less than 10 percent last month.

"I had one of the worst summers ever," said Lisa Levison of Levison Realty Group in Tampa.

"Even in my own neighborhood (Lakes of Sable Ridge in Land O'Lakes), homes that would have sold quickly last year have been on the market for five or six months. There's no demand."

She said things picked up slightly last month, but she isn't expecting a big rebound soon. She said houses are being listed at lower prices than what they would have sold for a year ago.

"I had a listing in Madeira Beach three blocks from the beach that we had under contract in February at $275,000 when the seller decided to take it off the market," she said. "It was relisted for $249,900 and now it's under contract for significantly less."

Some sellers are offering incentives as a substitute for price cuts. The Times told the story Saturday of Maureen and Tom Brennan, who threw in a 1997 Lexus 400SL to sell the Hudson villa they bought last December.

They sold it for $2,000 more than what they paid - if you don't count the value of the car.

"I've seen sellers offering to pay points on a buyer's mortgage to bring the interest rate down, and I saw one seller offered $40,000 to build the buyer a pool," Levison said.

Johnston said he expects many properties to be pulled off the market as their owners decide it's better to rent them than to let them sit empty with a "For sale'' sign out front. Many are owned by investors, who played a major role in driving prices up in Florida in the past three years.

David Lereah, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, said he expects prices to continue falling nationally for several months.

The group's president, Thomas Stevens, said sellers need to face market realities when setting their listing prices.

"In some areas home sellers are not making sufficient adjustments in their listing price, so their homes are staying on the market and contributing to the buildup in inventory," he said.

William Alton is one of the optimists. He and his wife, Jacqueline, are asking $560,000 for the St. Petersburg house they recently put on the market. The two-story house in the Crescent Heights neighborhood has a fireplace and pool. "That's a great family house," he said. "I think it sells probably faster than average."

The Florida market benefits from continued in-migration, but it also has some special challenges.

"Homeowners insurance is a nightmare that's causing a lot of deals to fall through," Levison said. In addition, Florida's tax structure means recent homebuyers pay much higher taxes than longtime residents.

"Soon you're not going to be able to afford to own a house in Florida if you are a middle- or lower-income worker," she said.

Johnston said he's also seeing cases of people selling homes to become renters, something he said he'd never seen before.

Statewide, single-family home sales were down 34 percent compared with last year, while the median price of $248,400 was unchanged. The drop in sales was most dramatic in the West Palm Beach-Boca Raton area, where sales were off 50 percent.

Existing condo sales were down 41 percent both statewide and in the Tampa Bay area. The median sales price was $201,300 statewide, a 2 percent drop. In the Tampa Bay area it was $171,600, a 4 percent increase from last year.

Helen Huntley can be reached at hhuntley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8230.

HOUSING SALES AND PRICES DECLINE FROM YEAR AGO

Sales have fallen most dramatically in the West, with prices dropping the most in the Northeast.

August Change Median Change

home sales from year ago price from year ago

Northeast 1.07-million -11.6 percent $271,000 -3.9 percent

Midwest 1.44-million -11.1 percent $176,000 -1.1 percent

South 2.51-million -7.4 percent $184,000 -2.6 percent

West 1.29-million -22.8 percent $345,000 +0.3 percent

Source: National Association of Realtors

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