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Five years ago, you could get a very nice house for under $185,000 in Hillsborough and Pinellas. Now? Good luck

THEN: At left, this house in Valrico sold in June 2014 for $182,129. (Courtesy of Google Earth) NOW: At right, this 1,062-square-foot house in Tampa’s Town N Country area is on the market for $183,000. (SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN | Times)
Published Aug. 1

As evidence of how much Tampa Bay house prices have jumped over the past five years, consider this:

In June 2014, a total of 765 houses sold in Hillsborough County for under $183,000. This June, only 287 sold for less than that amount.

At the other end of the price spectrum, look at what's happened in Pinellas County. There, 18 houses sold for $1 million or more in June 2014. This June? 144 did.

Knocked for a loop by the 2008 housing crash, Tampa Bay's residential real estate market has enjoyed a robust recovery. Sales prices have steadily risen, boosting the value of all homes and providing more property tax support for schools, police and other local government services. Where entire neighborhoods once were ravaged by foreclosures, houses have been spruced up, added on to or replaced by bigger, grander structures.

The downside: It's harder to become a homeowner in Tampa Bay these days. Although prices are still moderate compared to those in other major metro areas, they are higher than many people can — or want — to pay.

"We decided to stop looking,'' said Jenna Norge, whose house-hunting with her husband was chronicled in a Tampa Bay Times story a few years ago. "We've thought about relocating outside of St. Petersburg because the prices have just gotten so out of control.''

READ MORE: Looking for an average-priced home in the Tampa Bay area? Good luck

To show how much the market has changed in five years, the Times compared single-family home sales in June 2014 with those for June 2019, the most recent month for which figures were available. (The analysis was limited to Pinellas and Hillsborough, the bay area's two most-populous counties, because 2014 sales data could not be obtained for Pasco and Hernando.)

By 2014, the recovery from the crash was well underway. Earlier that year, a Times story had proclaimed 2013 as when "Tampa Bay's housing market came alive.'' Once again, "Sold'' signs sprouted in front of thousands of homes, although many were foreclosures.

In June 2014, the median price of houses sold in Hillsborough was $182,955. This June, the median price hit $263,462 — a 44 percent gain.

The increase was even more dramatic in Pinellas. Over five years, the median price soared from $164,000 to $275,000 — a 68 percent jump.

David Bennett, president of the Pinellas Realtor Organization, attributes the rise in part to Pinellas' status as the most densely populated county in Florida.

"We have no land other than in-fill lots and those are few and far between and very pricey,'' he said. "So naturally we're going to have an issue with cost in Pinellas, probably going forward a long period in time.''

With apartment and townhome developers snapping up the few large parcels available in Pinellas, builders of single-family homes have razed smaller houses and replaced them with McMansions along the beaches and in areas close to downtown St. Petersburg. That's one reason eight times as many million-dollar homes sold in June as did five years ago.

Other striking differences between then and now:

• The median sales price in 2014 wouldn't buy nearly as much house today. Five years ago in Hillsborough, 80 houses that sold for under $183,000 had at least 2,000 square feet of living space. This June, only eight houses in that price range were as spacious.

• Foreclosures — which helped fuel the recovery — are rapidly drying up. Of the houses sold in June 2014 in Pinellas, 226 were bank- owned. This June, there were only 27.

• As prices rise, the number of all-cash purchases is shrinking. In the two counties, 25 percent fewer homes were bought for cash this June than in the same month five years ago. Bob Pasquarello, an agent with Century 21 Beggins Enterprises and treasurer of Greater Tampa Realtors, notes that current prices are about the same as they were in 2005, before the real estate bubble popped.

"Even back then, when the market was fairly stable, we were still appreciating 3 to 5 percent a year in home values,'' he said. "That has to contribute to some of the increase in the value we're seeing now.''

READ MORE: Big newcomer to Tampa Bay's real estate market is bullish on the area's value and 'kitschy-esque' charm

A major factor in the price run-up has been the chronic shortage of houses for sale. As Tampa Bay was still recovering from the crash, big-time investors bought thousands of foreclosures and turned them into rentals. Now, with the economy strong again, far fewer bank-owned homes are on the market.

And people who already own houses are often reluctant to sell them for fear they won't be able to find anything else they like and can afford. "The inventory has dropped substantially and if you don't have much inventory, what's out there is going to demand a higher price,'' Pasquarello said.

Bennett of Pinellas Realtors said inventory figures are even lower than they might appear because houses go under contract so quickly. In June, Pinellas had 3,049 "active'' listings of single-family homes but 1,675 of those already had a buyer lined up.

"That's how fast the churn is,'' Bennett said.

Cyndee Haydon, a broker associate with Future Home Realty, said the biggest demand tends to be for houses in the $314,000 range, the minimum price at which a property is eligible for FHA financing with 3 percent down. That price point is affordable for two-income, working class families thanks to programs that can help with the down payment.

"But in a competitive market, where someone needs down payment assistance, I'm not sure you as a seller are super excited about that,'' Haydon said. "What the seller wants is the most qualified buyer, the shortest inspection times, minimal contingencies, the cleanest offer and a good lender.''

Haydon, a Pinellas Realtor Organization board member, sees nothing in the Tampa Bay market right now that would suggest a slump, although an increase in mortgage rates could cause a leveling off of prices, she said. Among her biggest concerns is flood insurance and whether new maps that move many properties into high-risk zones could spark a huge increase in premiums.

READ MORE: Interactive: Pinellas County flood maps are changing. Here's what's different.

"Homes that don't need flood insurance will see an uptick in prices,'' she predicted, "but others will see a significant downturn.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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