Nothing jolts Florida's economy like a robust housing market, and its recovery over the past year is good news for the state.
But underneath the increase in sales and the rising home prices are troubling signs that the market's future remains uncertain.
Investors are buying the lion's share of the inventory in Florida and in other states hit particularly hard by the housing meltdown, snapping up thousands of homes at the bottom of the market with plans to rent or flip them.
Left out in the cold are first-time buyers and former homeowners displaced by the meltdown but looking to re-invest in the American dream. They lack the cash, or the credit standing, to get the loans necessary to begin establishing that bedrock of financial security for the middle class: home equity.
Home ownership means investing in the economy with trips to home improvement stores for the necessary upkeep or hiring workers for improvements and additions. Children grow up in homes that later pay for their college education. Retirees consider the equity a nest egg.
That's why we find it troubling that so many cash investors are winning the day. Equity is being accrued by large corporations rather than families with children. Instead of investing in a home, renters are mailing the monthly checks to companies beyond Florida.
"There is the possibility that Wall Street and the banks and the affluent 1 percent stand to gain the most from this," Jack McCabe, a real estate consultant in South Florida, told The Washington Post.
It sounds hauntingly familiar to a decade ago, when the market was manipulated for quick profits. And we all know what happened when the wheels came off.
The long-term effect of having large investors in the market will depend on how long they remain active, says Brad Monroe, a Realtor for Prudential Tropical Realty in Tampa. "Is it a flash in the pan? Or something that lasts five or six years?"
Already, the activity has shrunk the housing inventory. Across the nation, the boost in home sales has contributed to a boost in interest rates.
To be sure, the investor activity helped kick-start the housing market. Values are up, and the real estate brokers, property assessors and title companies are busy again. State and local governments, the beneficiaries of rising property values, are hiring again and giving raises.
And there is a significant difference from 2008, when unqualified buyers were given loans they had no business taking on. The investors are buying with cash.
"It's positive for the short term," economist John Turcillo of the Florida Realtors trade group told Tribune reporter Michael Sasso. "But it is a risk for the long term."
Rising home prices can be expected to dampen the appeal to investors. Let's hope that occurs while the market continues its climb and interest rates are low, leaving the American dream intact for the next generation.