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Hundreds of homes pulled from Tampa Bay real estate market as coronavirus stirs uncertainty

Yet March home sales were solid in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. So what does the future real estate market look like?
The home owned by Sara Witte and her husband is seen Thursday in Palm Harbor. Back in February, the Wittes decided to hold off on putting their home on the market because they had heard March was the best time to sell a house.
The home owned by Sara Witte and her husband is seen Thursday in Palm Harbor. Back in February, the Wittes decided to hold off on putting their home on the market because they had heard March was the best time to sell a house. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Apr. 16, 2020|Updated Apr. 16, 2020

Back in February, Sara Witte and her husband decided to hold off putting their Palm Harbor three-bedroom, 2½-bathroom home on the market because they had heard March was the best time to sell a house.

By the time they listed the home on March 13, the world was swiftly becoming a different place.

“As soon as we listed the house, we had about eight showings within two weeks,” said Witte, a nurse. Interested buyers wore disposable booties on their shoes and used disinfectant wipes after touching doorknobs.

"Once the stay-at-home order got put into effect, it was like radio silence."

The Wittes had already purchased a new home in Jacksonville in preparation for their move, spurred by a job change. So out of fear of carrying two mortgages — especially in a time when future income is not guaranteed — they dropped the asking price $9,000. After one potential buyer fell through, they’ve resumed showings.

The Wittes’ experience is one that shows the trepidation surrounding the housing market at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has caused unemployment to explode and the economy to pause.

A sign at the front door of the Witte's home is seen Thursday in Palm Harbor. The sign suggests potential buyers to remove shoes and disinfect while viewing the home.
A sign at the front door of the Witte's home is seen Thursday in Palm Harbor. The sign suggests potential buyers to remove shoes and disinfect while viewing the home. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

In Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, 874 single-family homes and condos were temporarily taken off the market in the past four weeks alone. That’s according to a report by the Pinellas Realtor Organization, which only recently started tracking that number.

David Bennett, president and CEO of the organization, noted that several hundred properties also have been re-listed in the past seven days.

Still, those involved in Tampa Bay’s real estate market seem to agree that these numbers represent a hesitancy from sellers to list their homes during a time when having strangers tour their kitchens and bedrooms is less than ideal.

But there’s less consensus over what it says about buyers’ demand.

When told about the number of homes coming off the market, Charles Gallagher, a St. Petersburg real estate lawyer, said the figure was shocking.

“Those are anomaly numbers," he said. "Deals have been voluntarily killed ... (because) buyers are saying, ‘I just lost a job,’ or lost interest and a seller is saying, ‘There’s no point in keeping it on the market trying to wait it out.’”

Gallagher added that he’s seen an uptick in calls from buyers trying to pull out of contracts because they’re afraid their employment will change and they won’t be able to afford the house they signed up to buy.

“If you’re someone who relies on an employer and has any risk of being furloughed, laid off or losing employment then you’re thinking, ‘I’m going to be conservative and start saving,’” he said. There is “fear and trepidation for being locked in (to a home purchase) and you’re setting yourself up for disaster if you’re a buyer.”

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Rachel Tenpenny Sartain, managing broker at Keller Williams Realty St. Petersburg, said she’s concerned about a possible shortage of homes on the market.

“If sellers continue to take their homes off the market, it’s going to be devastating for buyers, Realtors, home inspectors, mortgage companies, appraisers, construction — which is all such a huge piece of our economy,” she said.

Adding to that concern: New homes are not being put on the market at the usual rate. According to a Zillow analysis, since March 1, new listings in the Tampa metro area are down about 8 percent, at a time when they are typically up by nearly 40 percent.

But the number of closed sales has, so far, been holding relatively steady.

For the month of March, the number of home sale closures actually saw an uptick week-over-week, according to Multiple Listing Service data pulled by Jennifer Zales, a Coldwell Banker agent in Tampa who specializes in luxury homes.

Zales said she’s seen no evidence of panic in the real estate market in Tampa Bay. She said real estate agents are still conducting home tours virtually, and buyers are signing their closing paperwork through creative drive-through methods to avoid sitting down at a table with people from outside their homes.

The demand hasn’t changed, she said, the process for buying a home simply has. She expects that homes being taken off the market will re-emerge when the pandemic passes.

“I think Tampa as a market is different than the rest of the country. We’re an area that people have been looking to move to from higher-tax states,” Zales said. “I actually think some of the folks that might have been thinking about purchasing property in two to four years for retirement might be looking sooner.”

"While some areas of the country might be feeling the real estate market come to a halt, we're just not seeing that," she added.

As with offering predictions for any slice of society during the coronavirus pandemic, knowing the future effects on the housing market may largely depend on how long the economy stays shut down.

On Monday, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees remarked that social distancing could be the “new normal” until a vaccine is developed, which could take a year or longer.

And Florida is a state that, according to one report, may be more sensitive to the effects of a housing slow-down compared to others. ATTOM Data Solutions, a California-based property data research firm, found that Florida has 10 of the top 50 counties determined most “vulnerable” to a housing market crunch. That’s based on the percentage of local wages required to cover home ownership, the percentage of homes underwater and the number of foreclosure notices at the end of 2019.

Hernando was the only county from the Tampa Bay region in that group of 10, ranked at No. 35.

Witte, the Palm Harbor nurse, said that after her first buyer fell through, the couple’s Realtor is circling back with people who previously expressed interest, and she’s optimistic a deal will come through.

She and her husband will continue to show their house, with the help of lots of Lysol. And they’ll drive their 3-year-old daughter around in the car while prospective buyers take tours, unable to take her to the park just down the street because it’s closed to prevent the spread of the virus.

“The only thing we can do now is remain hopeful,” she said.

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