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LOCAL RISE IN HOUSE SALES IS MOSTLY A MIRAGE

Yes, sales are way up over last year, but September '07 was when the market melted.

Home sales in the Tampa Bay area rose an impressive 29 percent in September, but an inspection of the numbers suggests the improvement was mostly a statistical charade.

Last month, the region tallied 2,174 sales of single-family homes, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. That's nearly 500 more sales than the 1,691 recorded in September 2007.

"The large percentage increase of sales this September vs. September 2007 is inflated by the sharp decline in sales that took place in September 2007," University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said. "That was the month following the initial wave of global fallout precipitated by the subprime mortgage meltdown."

Nevertheless, sales were up slightly from August as bargain-priced foreclosure properties buoyed the still-leaden market. The sales price of a typical Tampa area home dropped to $160,500 in September, lowest since May 2004. That's 20 percent below the median sales price of $200,700 in September 2007.

Foreclosure homes represented about a third of local housing transactions in September. On average, homes confiscated by the bank sold for about two-thirds the price of nondistressed properties.

"We're seeing heavy investor activity in the bank-owned end," said Peter Murphy, a real estate consultant with Tampa's HomeEncounter.

The same pattern held statewide. September's sales of 10,817 represented a year-over-year increase of 24 percent. Most dazzling was the surge in Fort Myers-Cape Coral, where closings increased 128 percent from a year earlier. Fort Myers' median sales price of $141,000 was among the lowest in the state.

Condos didn't benefit as much from September's statistical uplift. Local condo sales declined 2 percent year over year.

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