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Home sales climb 1.2 percent in January from a year ago

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Published:   |   Updated: February 21, 2014 at 09:05 PM

TAMPA — It may feel like the region’s once-hot housing market has hit the brakes, but an economist for the state’s leading Realtors group insists a recent month-to-month drop in existing-home sales isn’t cause for alarm.

In fact, Florida Realtors chief economist John Tuccillo said the housing market has reached a balance with enough homes coming onto the market to match sales. And, Realtors are selling more homes now than they were at this time last year, the best performance indicator.

Still, the number of home sales last month hit its lowest level in a year, even if’s down from a very high level. That can leave Realtors feeling a little blase.

“It’s meandering,” Tampa Realtor Mary Diaz said of the current housing market. “It’s like a meandering river.”

Florida Realtors issued its report Friday for existing-home and condo sales in January. Economists such as Tuccillo like to compare one month’s sales figures with the same month a year ago to smooth out any seasonal or abnormal bumps, and by that measure the region is doing OK.

In January, 2,367 existing single-family homes changed hands in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area. That’s up 1.2 percent over the same month last year. The median sales price also rose, too, to $136,000 in January, up 7.9 percent from January 2013.

The Tampa area under-performed the state last month, though, Florida Realtors figures show. Statewide, 15,000 existing single-family homes changed hands last month at a median sales price of $162,500. Those statewide numbers were up 10.2 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively.

Realtors are feeling the effects from a slowdown in buying by the likes of Blackstone Group’s Invitation Homes. Until last fall, Wall Street-backed investment firms were buying up many of the state’s foreclosure homes and many of the modestly priced homes that hit the market, especially homes in the range of $150,000. They slowed their buying dramatically recently, though, because housing prices rose so much that the investors couldn’t get the financial returns they wanted.

Economists track how many homes are purchased using only cash because they assume many of those cash sales go to investors.

A year ago, 50.5 percent of all existing single-family home sales in Florida were cash sales, but that has fallen to the 42- and 43-percent range every month since last summer. Cash sales did jump to 49.1 percent last month, but it’s not clear if that was a one-time occurrence.

“I think what you’re seeing there is investors retreating from this market,” Tuccillo said.

Short sales — sales in which the home sells for less than what’s owed on the mortgage — also were down by 46 percent statewide in January when compared with this time last year. They’re dropping in tandem with the overall rising prices for houses, Tuccillo said.

Diaz, the Tampa Realtor, wonders if many of the short sales never went through and the banks took the houses back. She said she’s noticing more bank-owned properties hit the market in Brandon, especially.

At first glance, the data suggest the Bay area’s real estate market has fallen significantly from several months ago. For example, last month’s sales total of 2,367 existing single-family homes is the lowest total since January 2013, when 2,338 homes changed hands. For most of last year Realtors sold well over 3,000 homes per month.

Tuccillo, though, said economists never look at sales from one month to the next and they prefer to use a year-over-year comparison. Tuccillo acknowledged that even the year-over-year sales increases have slowed in recent months, but “let’s just see how it plays out.”

Kay Hubbard, a Tampa mortgage broker, said business has been strong lately with people applying for home loans. Interest rates on a 30-year fixed-rate loan were still low in January, averaging 4.43 percent, mortgage giant Freddie Mac says.

“I am getting three to five (mortgage) pre-approvals per week, which is a lot for my small shop,” Hubbard said.

msasso@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7865

Twitter: @msasso

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