SEBRING If you wanted to buy a house at the bottom of the market, you might’ve missed it.
Steve Fruit doesn’t keep records on whether homes are purchased by investors or residents.
“But anecdotally, we’re seeing a lot of interest from investors now,” said Fruit, an agent with RE/MAX Realty Plus in Lake Placid. “My sense of the market is that investors feel that it’s time to come back into the market.”
“I’m seeing a lot of activity,” said C.J. Hamel, an agent in RE/MAX’s Sebring office. “It wasn’t this way last year. This is very recent. Since January, I would say, as far the market turning.”
The Florida coasts are usually the first to feel trends. The Toronto Star reported that in Miami, foreign investors were so anxious to snag American real estate deals before the housing recovery pushes up home prices that they're buying homes over the Internet.
"Some Chinese investors bought up 35 (townhouse-condo) units without even flying in first," Wayne Levy of Florida Home Finders told the newspaper. "They looked at a picture. They wrote checks."
Asians, are "seeing the U.S. as a safe haven to put their money," Realtor Shant Epremian of Boca Raton-based Pink Palm Properties told the Star.
Bill Pittenger of Orlando, who studies the real estate market for his own company, Real Estate Economics, said foreign investors “are certainly noticeable, very strong in Miami, and it’s happening a lot in Orlando.”
This was the way the 21st century real estate boom started, he said: out-of-state investors, sloppy underwriting, panic buying.
Fruit and Hamel aren’t seeing foreign investors, but the boom could be reigniting in Highlands.
“The herd tends to go where things are the least expensive,” Pittenger said. “It starts on both coastal areas, then migrates to Central Florida, then the inland counties. I think if it is going to repeat, it will not be in quite the same fashion. U.S. lenders are much more discreet. But with the foreign investors, darn near anything goes.”
After the housing boom busted in 2007, 6,000 homes were foreclosed, according to Highlands County Clerk of Courts Bob Germaine.
“With all the foreclosures and short sales, investors are purchasing them for rentals,” Hamel said.
More proof that the market is heating up: from 2005 to 2011, the number of mortgages Germaine recorded fell from 11,056 to 1,795. In 2012, the number rose more than 20 percent to 2,176. In the first 65 days of 2013, 462 have already been recorded. That’s more than 50 percent better than 2011.
But will that trend hold?
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m seeing a lot of activity,” Hamel said. “I see a lot of clients who are buying high-ticket items for cash. And sellers are getting market value. Foreclosures seem to be dwindling.”
The number of foreclosures recorded by the Highlands County Clerk’s Office dropped from a peak of 1,508 in 2009 to 896 in 2012, according to Germaine’s statistics.
CoreLogic reported single-family home prices in Miami rose 11.2 percent in January from a year ago. Home prices across Florida rose 9.7 percent over last year. U.S. home prices rose 9.7 percent in January from a year earlier.