Tampa Bay led all major U.S. metro areas in completed foreclosures last year as lenders took back nearly 18,400 homes, houses and condos — 5.3 percent more than in 2013.
The bay area, which includes Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, bucked a national trend that saw a decline in completed foreclosures in most parts of the nation, the real estate data tracking service CoreLogic reported Tuesday.
Tampa Bay's increase, though, isn't necessarily bad.
"The sooner we clear out these properties that are the result of the bust, the quicker the market can resume its upward turn,'' said Irwin Wilensky, whose SunRaye Realty has the listings for 200 bank-owned homes throughout the region.
A foreclosure is deemed complete when the property is sold at auction to the bank or an investor even though it might be weeks before the homeowner actually moves out.
Nationally, completed forecloses in 2014 were at their lowest point since November 2007 when the housing market crashed.
Of the 18,399 Tampa Bay homes that went to foreclosure auction last year, hundreds already have found new owners as demand and prices for bank-owned properties climb.
"The market has been very active,'' said broker Peter Chicouris, whose Equity Realty handles foreclosures throughout Tampa Bay. "Most properties have more than one offer when they hit the market, and the average days on the market are less than 30 days. That's across the board — low-end all the way up to $1 million.''
In Hillsborough County, 3,259 single family homes that had been foreclosed sold last year, up 32 percent from the previous year. The median price rose 9 percent, to $109,000.
In Pinellas, sales shot up 34 percent, from 2,891 to 3,875. The median price rose 8 percent, to $81,000.
Unlike a few years ago, when many foreclosures went on the market while in deplorable shape, banks often rehab properties now before offering them for sale. The goal is to attract buyers who intend to live in the house, not rent it or flip it for a quick profit.
"The banks are starting to repair (foreclosures) to help improve the neighborhoods and bring the quality of the property up versus selling it as is for investors,'' Chicouris said.
Another advantage of renovations: Owner-occupants have an easier time getting financing if the property is in good condition.
In St. Petersburg's Shore Acres neighborhood, Wells Fargo completely remodeled a stilt home including new kitchen and bath.
Just listed at $239,000, "That property will go way over the asking price,'' predicted Scott Samuels, the Realtor who has the listing. "We'll have a (bidding) war on that one.''
Wells Fargo also "white boxes'' certain foreclosed properties, removing all cabinets and spraying the entire interior with white paint to remove dirt and stench.
"That's generally done in houses that aren't valuable enough to totally renovate,'' Samuels said, noting that the bank paid $27,000 to white-box a home that listed for just $18,000.
Wilensky, of SunRaye Realty, said judges seem to be speeding up foreclosures of investor-owned properties — often second homes that "John and Mary bought'' at the peak of the boom — as well as of long-vacant "zombie'' homes.
"Pinellas in particular is trying to be aggressive in clearing the books of those properties because they don't benefit anybody,'' Wilensky said.
In December, the percentage of Tampa Bay homes in some stage of foreclosure stood at 4.6 percent, exceeded only by Newark, N.J., and Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y. However, the bay area's foreclosure rate was slightly lower than it was in December 2013.
The decline in foreclosure rates "is a good sign of healing in the U.S. housing market,'' Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic, said in a statement.
"Nevertheless," he added, "there remain many pockets of the country with very high foreclosure inventories, underscoring the unevenness of the nation's housing recovery."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate