SaVannah Wright, , a former college cheerleader who now designs cheerleading uniforms, had been a reluctant renter for the past few years. She wanted to buy a house but didn't think she could afford one — until she spoke with a loan broker.
"It kind of opened my eyes to the possibility,'' said Wright, 25. "A mortgage would be equal to or less than rent.''
In October, Wright paid $155,000 for a 952-square-foot bungalow near Tampa's Seminole Heights. Not only was the house affordable for her, it epitomizes in many ways what "affordable'' means today in Tampa Bay's still-hot housing market.
For anyone looking to buy a home, a classic rule of thumb is to pay no more than three times gross annual income. With the bay area's median household income now at $52,212, that would price an affordable home at $156,636. No houses in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties sold for that exact amount in October — the most recent month for which figures are available — but 14 went for close to that at $155,000.
So what does $155,000 buy in a house these days in Tampa Bay's largest, most expensive counties? Here's what we found:
• If you're willing to sacrifice square footage for price, you might be able to get an updated house like Wright's. Go above 1,000 square feet, and it's almost impossible to find anything that's move-in ready for $155,000.
• Rising prices have limited the number of flippers in the market, but some are still buying. Investors purchased three of October's $155,000 houses, all fixer-uppers but roomy enough that they could command much higher prices when remodeled.
• Forget about getting a $155,000 house in Tampa Bay's most sought-after neighborhoods such as Tampa's Palma Ceia or St. Petersburg's Old Northeast. There are deals to be had, though, in some up-and-coming areas.
One of those is St. Petersburg's Central Oak Park, just west of U.S. 19 and near popular Historic Kenwood. In 2016, Zillow predicted Central Oak Park would be among the five Tampa Bay areas with the biggest price jumps that year. It wasn't wrong: Houses that sold for an average of $55 per square foot in 2015 were going for $86 per square foot a year later.
In October, Craig Palombine bought a 856-square-foot house for $155,000 — $181 per square foot.
"It's a fair price,'' he said, "look at the neighborhood.''
Palombine, 27, was drawn to Central Oak Park because it is not in a flood zone, has a below-average crime rate and is relatively close to downtown St. Petersburg and his job as community association manager of a Kenneth City condo complex. A growing number of homes in the quiet, leafy neighborhood are occupied by owners, not renters.
Thanks to his military service, Palombine was able to get a VA loan with no downpayment. That freed up money for the substantial amount of work left to be done on the two-bedroom, one-bath house. Although move-in ready, it needs new windows, a water heater and a new air-conditioning system. On a recent weekend, Palombine's parents, visiting from Pittsburgh, were hacking away at the overgrowth and putting in posts for a contemporary-style fence with horizontal slats.
"We came down to help keep the costs down,'' Nancy Palombine said.
A few miles north, in an unincorporated area just outside the St. Petersburg city limits, a retiree from New York paid $155,000 in October for a 924-square-foot bungalow. The clean two-bedroom, two-bath house has some upgrades including a backyard deck and a remodeled bathroom. But the second bathroom is in the garage, the kitchen is dated and the house is just one door away from busy 49th Street.
The buyer "was used to much more space than we have in Florida for this price range so I kind of had to explain to her about our bungalow lifestyle and convince her that less is more,'' said Aimee Rock, the selling agent.
Rock said the woman started her search in Spring Hill and also considered Palmetto, where "you get just a little more house for the money.'' But after two months of looking, she and her daughter, who lives with her, decided they liked the "vibe'' of St. Petersburg.
In general, Rock said, a nice $155,000 house is hard to come by.
"They got lucky with that one,'' she said. "We had looked at a lot of properties and there were a lot of flipped homes that weren't done properly that would probably be more work than something well-maintained like this.''
Ernesto Perez and his wife paid $155,000 in October for their house in Pinellas Park, an area where money also tends to go further than it does in St. Petersburg. Although it too is under 1,000 square feet, the house has a large fenced yard and an updated kitchen with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.
The couple, first-time home buyers who moved from Cuba a few years ago, also looked in St. Petersburg, Largo and Seminole but chose Pinellas Park to be close to relatives and his job with a tile company. A big bonus: The house needed no work at all.
"This house is of my dreams,'' Perez said.
In Hillsborough in October, $155,000 bought two larger houses, both foreclosures.
In the Bayport area off W Hillsborough Avenue, an investor paid cash for a house with nearly 1,800 square feet. Pluses: vaulted ceilings and a tiled backyard patio. Minus: poor curb appeal. The main entrance is on the side, leaving the front dominated by the garage door.
Bayport, though, is another up- and- coming area beginning to catch on with buyers priced out of neighborhoods closer to downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg. In the last six moths, other similarly sized houses have sold for as much as $235,00.
In Valrico, a bedroom community of Tampa, another investor snapped up a 1,453-square-foot house for cash shortly after it hit the market. It has skylights, a kitchen island and a garden tub but needed so much work that "it wouldn't meet qualifications for financing,'' selling agent Dolores Garcia said.
Depending on the cost of renovations, the three-bedroom, two-bath house could potentially reap the investor a tidy profit: Sale prices in the last six months have topped $250,000 for dozens of other 3/2 houses in the area.
Wright, the former University of South Florida cheerleader, thinks she got an excellent deal on her own $155,000 house even though it's tiny by most standards. The seller, an investor, had completely redone it with a new kitchen, bathroom and trendy plank tile flooring.
"It's a flipped home so everything is brand new, which kind of alleviated the stress of home buying,'' Wright said. "It's just me by myself, I didn't need anything bigger.''
Wright, who coaches USF cheerleaders and designs uniforms for high school squads, had been working in Orlando but was moving back to the bay area. The seller had several offers equal to or higher than hers but was won over by a letter she wrote praising his renovations and telling something about herself.
"I gave him my background and how I missed Tampa ever since I left and that this house felt like home,'' Wright said. "I told him this would be my first home and hopefully my forever home.''
It must have been quite a letter. The seller even paid the closings costs.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.