New April home sales numbers released Thursday provide the latest window into how the pandemic has dramatically stunted the housing market — especially for people of modest means.
Nationally, sales of existing homes dropped by 17.2 percent in April compared to last year, according to the National Association of Realtors, hitting the lowest level of monthly home sales since July 2010.
In Tampa Bay, that trend was largely replicated, according to official numbers released by Florida Realtors. Hillsborough County saw an 18 percent drop in single-family home sales in April compared to 2019. Pinellas tumbled 27 percent. Pasco fared better, with a 12 percent decline.
But the new numbers also show that these drops were not distributed equally. They were fueled mostly by plummeting sales of the most affordable single-family homes — less than $250,000 — while more expensive properties were sometimes sold at rates that were actually higher compared to last year in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
Tampa realtor Lance Williams, who sells homes in all price ranges, said these numbers show lower-income people looking to buy cheaper homes are those most likely to have lost income or employment because of the pandemic. COVID-19 has been especially brutal to Florida’s hospitality and restaurant industries.
“The guy who’s buying the $5 million house, he is not affected because he just writes the check,” Williams said.
Yet Pinellas was an exception to this trend. Single-family home sales in every price range saw declines. There were 32 percent fewer sales for homes over a $1 million in April compared to last year, for example, a number strikingly similar to the drops for houses in some of the most inexpensive ranges.
Michael Bindman, a real estate broker and owner of the St. Petersburg firm NextHome Gulf to Bay, said Pinellas’ issues likely center around the fact that April is peak season for out-of-town tourists from up north to come down to the beaches and also scoop up second homes.
“They’ll buy and they’ll be closing before they go back up north which tends to be end of April and May,” he said. “That’s a huge part of the market ... that didn’t happen this year.”
He also pointed out that the pandemic has made lenders much more conservative, making them hesitant to grant so-called “jumbo loans” to buyers looking to purchase million-dollar houses.
There are some reasons to hope that April will be the Tampa Bay market’s lowest point, Williams said. He’s already noticed an uptick in pending sales. For those whose income was not affected by the pandemic, the rock bottom interest rates have created a strong pull to jump back into the market.
“I think people are beginning to feel more comfortable, more secure every day,” he said.
But Lou Brown, a St. Petersburg broker and owner of his own firm that specializes in lower-to-moderate priced homes in Pinellas, said he’s concerned that if prices continue to go up in the months to come, the market will leave some unable to purchase homes in the long-term. The pandemic has revealed just how many people were already living paycheck-to-paycheck.
Under $250,000 “is a hard price range anyway," he said, “For the first-time home buyers and people looking for affordable housing — or what’s left of it."
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