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OUR HOMES AREN'T HELPING US

For most of us, our home is our biggest investment. And we desire not any old investment but a winning investment. But recent home sales in the Tampa Bay area have turned that assumption on its head.

Close to half of us in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties have been selling our homes at a loss this summer. Our block-and-stucco babies have been playing us for financial fools.

Zillow, the online real estate company, says 45 percent of Tampa Bay area homeowners sold at a loss as of July. More than 3,500 houses and condos sold in July, so we're talking a sizable number of money losers. It's worse in Hillsborough, where the sold-at-a-loss rate was 50 percent. Pinellas County fared best at 40 percent.

But what a change from the previous decade, when a scant 5 percent of homeowners lost money on their sales. During the housing boom, our homes bred equity like rabbits on Viagra.

When you plow through the Tampa Bay numbers, several things become clear. If you bought a new home in the past four years, your chances of selling at a loss are higher.

Take Pasco County. Its overall sold-at-a-loss percentage is 42 percent. But when you head over to Land O'Lakes, where thousands of new homes were built during the boom, the rate is 49 percent. The new sections of Wesley Chapel have a rate approaching 70 percent.

But when it comes to older communities like Holiday, Hudson and New Port Richey, only a third of homeowners sold at a loss. In most cases they lived in their homes long enough to establish equity.

St. Petersburg seems to buck the older-is-better formula. While Dunedin and Safety Harbor had sold-at-a-loss percentages below 30 percent, St. Petersburg's rate hovered at 44 percent. That suggests that heavy real estate investor involvement, even in older homes, can ravage a neighborhood's resale values.

Hillsborough showed the same trends. East Tampa, where cheap homes changed hands frantically during the boom, got the worst of it. So did Corey Lake Isles, a New Tampa neighborhood that registered a staggering 80 percent sold-at-loss rate.

Sixty-one percent of home sellers in Riverview, in the heart of Hillsborough's neo-suburbia, lost money on their sales. But in Lutz, where new homes are thin on the ground, 29 percent of homeowners sold at a loss.

It should be pointed out that in most cases it's the banks, and not the homeowners, who are bearing the losses. Bank-owned homes and short sales account for more than 40 percent of area transactions.

A short sale is when homeowners, with the permission of the bank, sell for less than the mortgage amount. It's essentially a get-out-debt-free card.

Conclusions? If we bought a new home during the boom, we not only overpaid, but we probably borrowed too much. How else to explain the equity bleed? On the other hand, neighborhoods with longtime homeowners have looked like relative paragons of stability.

It could always be worse. More than two-thirds of Orlando homeowners are selling at a loss. Our kingdom has been a little more magical.

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