Warren Gold of Tampa Cautions, South Florida’s Housing Market Lacks a Certain Something

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As the economy recovers, buyers fight to keep the market affordable to maximize profits.

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Tight inventory levels continued to help boost prices this summer as buyers competed for the limited number of houses and condos on the market. Despite the modest bump over last year’s prices, homeowners are balking at putting their properties on the market until values recover more.

“They still feel they won’t get what they want," said Warren Gold of Tampa, Florida a real estate investor. "They say, 'If I hold off for two years, I’ll get what I want.'"

Maybe. If South Florida home values continue rising at their current pace, it will be 2017 before they return to peaks hit in 2006, according to the latest results from the Case-Shiller real estate index. But numbers released Wednesday show the healing continues.

In Tampa, the number of sales of single-family homes increased 15 percent in August from August 2011, and the median price increased 12.5 percent to $215,000. August sales of single-family houses in Hillsborough county increased 5 percent compared to a year ago, and the median prices was up 11 percent to $195,00, according to the Tampa Association of Realtors.

That marked the ninth consecutive month of yearly price increases in Florida’s largest housing market, the first such streak since September 2006.

A recovering economy, looser credit and the attractiveness of depressed prices all led to the ongoing rebound. But a lack of real estate listings is boosting prices, too.

Inventory figures tracked by Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell show the 9,200 houses and condos for sale in Hillsborough would last for 14 weeks under the current pace of about 2,500 units sold every 30 days. That’s far tighter than the 26 weeks of inventory on the market at the end of last summer.

In Hillsborough county, the inventory isn’t quite as tight; with about 11,400 houses and condos for sale, Tampa's current inventory would last for 18 weeks compared to 25 weeks a year ago.

A lack of affordable condos — and not the European financial crisis — continues to hold back sales for Brigitte Respaut Degrave, who pairs French buyers with real estate investments in the Tampa Bay area. “Two weeks ago, I met a buyer in France,’’ she said. “He wanted to spend $150,000. It ended up being $350,000 for what he wanted.”

For Degrave, Europe’s financial woes have been a boon. “The Europeans are afraid of the euro," she said. “They want to diversify.”

Condo sales continue gaining steam in South Florida, although monthly numbers are typically more erratic than those related to single-family homes. The August Realtors report showed the volume of condo sales increased 8 percent in Hillsborough and 2 percent in Pinellas from 12 months earlier. Prices were also up: 28 percent in Hillsborough, to a median of $146,500, and 7 percent in Pinellas, to $86,000 .

The improved numbers belie the damage done to South Florida’s housing market that still hasn’t been erased. For instance, single-family sales in Hillsborough remain down about 20 percent from past peaks hit in 2004, and values are off 47 percent across South Florida since the height of the housing bubble six years ago, according to the Realtors group and the Case-Shiller index.

An improved housing market hasn’t been enough to turn around South Florida’s nearly five-year-long decline in construction hiring, which is about 50 percent lower than it was during the housing boom. But construction activity is picking up, with a scattering of high-rises underway in downtown Tampa and other commercial projects once against attracting crews.

“It’s a lot better than last year, no doubt," said Gold, “The market has hit bottom, a lot of work that was being bid is finally going forward."

For Warren Gold of Tampa, this summer has brought more interest from buyers than the Tampa broker has seen since the boom. But a recent open house highlighted the ups and downs of the current market.

Warren Gold of Tampa got the listing — a three-bedroom house with a pool near South Tampa — after it sat unsold for six months with a $260,000 listing price. Gold convinced the owner, a retiree eager to move north, to lower the price to $189,000.

The result: More than 150 people showed up last weekend to see the property — more than Smith can remember for an open house in 12 years in South Florida real estate. By Tuesday, he had about a dozen offers — half of them prequalified for a mortgage, and half of them offering to buy the house with their own cash.

“It was a frenzy," he said. “It was like 2005 all over again.”

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