Jenna and David Norge speak in wistful tones of all the homes that might have been.
There was the ranch-style place in northeast St. Petersburg, behind Publix and close to the boat ramp at Crisp Park.
"My type of house,'' David says ruefully. "A fixer-upper."
Or how about the three-bedroom, two-story craftsman near Crescent Lake?
"I knew it was going to go fast,'' Jenna says, "just because of where it was located.''
And why, oh, why, didn't they move quicker on the house on 23rd Avenue N even if the asbestos shingles were an initial turnoff?
Says Jenna: "We should have gone for it.''
For the past two years, the Norges have been searching for what might soon be unattainable — a home they can afford in an area where they really, truly want to live. They have looked at many houses in their price range — $250,000 max — only to see them snatched up almost as soon as the For Sale sign was hung.
"This market kind of snuck up on us,'' Jenna says.
According to the National Association of Home Builders, homes in the greater Tampa Bay area are less affordable now than at almost any time since the organization launched its Housing Opportunity Index in 2009. Of the 220 metro areas the index tracks, Tampa Bay ranks 107th in affordability.
From the depth of the housing crisis, when many homes plunged in value by 50 percent or more, prices started to rebound two years ago and show no signs of slowing down. At the same time, tighter lending standards make it harder for people — including young, first-time home buyers like the Norges — to get a mortgage.
The result: Finding a decent-size home in your desired area and at an affordable price can be a long, frustrating slog in the bay area's sizzling real estate market.
And if your idea of decent size is a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house — the average American home, according to U.S. Census data — don't even think about coveted neighborhoods like Tampa's Palma Ceia and St. Petersburg's Old Northeast.
As of this week, there was not a single 3/2 for sale in either area at anything near the "average'' price for a home in Hillsborough or Pinellas counties.
• • •
To determine what a buyer might expect to get in the average-priced — i.e. affordable — three-bedroom, two-bath house these days, the Tampa Bay Times looked at data from the Multiple Listing Service and talked to real estate agents about market conditions in their areas. We used average sale prices in February because they were representative of the first quarter of 2015.
Not surprisingly, the lowest average price — $123,563 — was in Hernando, the bay area's northernmost and least populated county. Closest to the average is a spacious home built at the peak of the boom for $223,400, foreclosed two years ago and now listed for just $124,900 through Fannie Mae's HomePath program.
Drawback: It's in Spring Hill, an area notorious for sinkholes, though this house isn't known to have a problem.
"Unfortunately, there are things that have caused concern here but Hernando County doesn't typically have the deep sinkholes like in other areas of Florida,'' says Ken Thorpe, an agent with Real Estate Florida Group. "I would rather have a cosmetic sinkhole issue than have my house disappear.''
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On the plus side, Thorpe notes, the house is close to State Road 50, with its abundance of stores and medical facilities, and 4 miles from the Veterans Expressway. Despite its reputation as sinkhole central, Hernando is becoming more popular with home buyers because price increases tend to lag those in counties farther south.
"We're typically six months behind Tampa,'' Thorpe says.
At the top end of the range is Hillsborough, where the average sale price was $216,082 in February. The house closest to that amount offers a lot for the money — an extra half-bath, vaulted ceilings and a garden tub.
Drawback: It's in Riverview, a sometimes grueling commute to downtown Tampa.
"We've had a lot of interest in the property,'' says Chris Reade, the Century 21 listing agent, but no offers in almost two months. One reason is that the taxes are high — $5,200 — because the house is in a community development district.
The location could also be a factor, though Riverview no longer is considered the boondocks it once was.
"It's a growing area. They just built the Amazon distribution center. St. Joseph's Hospital just opened,'' Reade says. "We have a good conglomeration of families in here — some retirees, some younger couples, a little bit of everything.''
In Pasco County, the average sale price hit $152,110 in February, $6,000 higher than in the same month a year ago. For almost exactly that amount, agent Mark McCullough has been trying to sell a three-bedroom, two-bath home with solar-heated pool on a corner lot.
Drawback: It's in Hudson while "people want to be toward the Trinity area,'' McCullough says.
A fast-growing community in southern Pasco, Trinity is the county's current hot spot thanks to its newer, bigger homes and shorter commute to Tampa and St. Petersburg.
"In Trinity, when a home goes up for sale, it goes quick,'' says McCullough, who lives in nearby Cypress Lakes. "With homes in Hudson, there's a much bigger inventory and you can get much better deals. Move that $152,000 house to my neighborhood or a little further south and you're kicking it up to $170,000.''
In Pinellas County, the average sale price rose almost $10,000 in a year, to $207,040. Listed at nearly that sum was a three-bedroom, two-bath home in Lake Pasadena, a sought-after area in west St. Petersburg known for its big lots, bricked streets and mature trees.
Drawback: The house was built in 1953 and hasn't been updated much since.
Still, it's in the kind of charming, leafy neighborhood that reminds buyers of the Old Northeast, where nothing of similar size can be had for less than $550,000. Veteran real estate agent Richard Tourtelot wasn't surprised when the house drew three offers — two over the asking price — almost as soon as it went on the market.
"The neighborhood will support a much higher price,'' he says, noting that a home across the street recently sold for $310,000. "We don't have a lot of inventory to begin with and people see values going up.''
Though the current contract is expected to close soon, the first offer accepted fell through because the buyers — a couple in their 40s, both working — couldn't get financing.
It's a fairly common problem these days.
• • •
During the housing boom, when prices shot up as much as 25 percent a year, the joke was that anyone who could fog a mirror could get a mortgage. No more.
"The typical subprime lender, stated income/stated assets, no income verification — all that stuff is gone,'' says Scott Gibertini, a residential mortgage manager for USAmeriBank. "What I see is a lot of people who don't realize how challenging it is to get approved for financing since changes were made.''
While borrowers often got 100 percent financing in the boom era, now they are required to put down at least 3 percent and as much as 20 percent. And while a higher income once might have offset a lower credit score, loan underwriters today "look at all criteria individually and the client has to meet each of those checked boxes,'' Gibertini says.
The good news for people looking to buy in the Tampa Bay area is that the average-priced home in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties is low enough to potentially qualify for an FHA loan with just 3.5 percent down.
The bad news, as Jenna and David Norge have discovered, is that it's hard to find an average-priced home in a desired area.
The couple, who met while attending Lakewood High, live in a wood-floored, two-bedroom apartment near St. Petersburg's Crescent Lake. A place that seemed cute and cozy at first is "now busting at the seams,'' Jenna says.
They began looking for a house a few years ago, determined to stay close to downtown St. Petersburg, where they spend much of their nonworking time. They go to Rays games, they play kickball at North Shore Park, they know every new restaurant and craft beer pub.
"It's really become a nightlife friendly area,'' says David, 29, who works in the cabinet distribution business.
"We just have a lot of stuff on this side of town,'' adds Jenna, 30, employed by the city of St. Petersburg.
They did what prospective home buyers are supposed to do — improved their credit scores, got preapproved for a mortgage.
"We didn't realize that when we found a house we liked, things could move so quickly, meaning the house could literally sell in a day,'' Jenna says.
Though David spent part of his youth in a waterfront area of northeast St. Petersburg, they have ruled that out because of the potentially high cost of flood insurance. Nor do they want to go north of 54th Avenue or west of 16th Street.
That has limited them to areas with fierce competition for the few moderately priced homes available. Despite needing "significant work,'' as the listing put it, the two-story craftsman near Crescent Lake was under contract within two days of hitting the market at $225,000.
Other places sold before the Norges even had a chance to call about them.
Jenna says they're waiting for "a house that we really like.'' David hopes they find it by Christmas.
Just 220 days and counting as prices rise by the month.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.