A combination of low mortgage rates and low temperatures in much of the nation helped fire up Tampa Bay's housing market in January.
In Hillsborough County, buyers closed on 969 single-family homes last month, a 6 percent gain over January 2014. In Pinellas, sales shot up 11.9 percent for the best January showing since the Great Recession.
For the entire metro area, which includes Pasco and Hernando counties, home sales rose 9.1 percent.
If Realtors have any regrets, it's that demand is higher than the supply of realistically priced homes in move-in condition.
"This is one of our busiest markets in how many years and there's no inventory,'' Diane Erler, an agent with Keller Williams Tampa Properties, lamented on Monday. "It's crazy.''
Marilyn Kagan, a Charles Rutenberg agent, concurs.
"Good inventory is really short. There are the normal crummy houses on the market, but the good inventory comes and goes really quickly. Sometimes you need to get (buyers) educated so they know what a good deal is when they see it, and when something comes on the market you have to be first in the door.''
Compared to January a year ago, inventories were down in both Pinellas and Hillsborough with less than a five-month supply of available homes.
That shortage, coupled with rising prices brought on by greater demand, is frustrating regular buyers as well as investors looking for cheap places to flip for profit.
January's median sale price for single-family homes in the greater Tampa Bay area hit $145,000, a 6.4 percent gain over a year earlier. Prices were even higher in Pinellas ($156,500) and Hillsborough ($160,000).
Reflecting the nationwide trend toward reurbanization, Kagan is finding high demand for homes in "cute, walkable'' areas like Dunedin and Safety Harbor in North Pinellas.
"People really like the little downtowns,'' she said. "They're looking for areas they can walk and bike to.''
For Florida as a whole, year-over-year sales of single family homes rose 10 percent in January compared with a monthly drop of nearly 5 percent nationwide as parts of the country suffered through frigid temperatures and heavy snows.
"Many speculate that the increased market activity is due to one of the harshest winters hitting the Northeast in decades, and that certainly helps,'' David Bennett, CEO of the Pinellas Realtor Organization, said in a statement. "But it is important to recognize that some aspects of home ownership are becoming more affordable."
A report in October by the online real estate firm Trulia found that buying is 38 percent less expensive than renting in all 100 major U.S. metro areas including Tampa Bay. That's due in large part to low interest rates that help hold down monthly mortgage payments.
Some other findings from the January sales reports:
• While sales of condos and townhomes dropped statewide and in Hillsborough, they soared 21.6 percent in Pinellas. Of the nine Tampa Bay condos that sold for $1 million or more in January, all were on the Pinellas beaches.
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• Single-family homes priced at $1 million or more took longer to sell in Pinellas than Hillsborough — a median of 285 days versus 166. In both counties, homes priced below $150,000 sold the fastest, often in less than two months.
• Although the percentage of single-family homes sold for cash dropped in Hillsborough and Pinellas, cash sales in January still accounted for nearly 38 percent of closed sales in Hillsborough and nearly 43 percent in Pinellas.
"There's a lot of cash in our marketplace right now,'' Kagan said, noting that some buyers are cashing out recent stock market gains and many baby boomers are selling homes up north and moving to Florida.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanksate.