That's where home prices have gone in the past five years. Many have enjoyed the roaring market. Young couples who stumbled into good fortune. Old-timers who bought at a pittance. But affordable housing is more scarce, and even pros can make mistakes.
By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published February 15, 2004
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Retired Pinellas/Pasco Circuit Judge Catherine Harlan and her husband, Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith, stand in front of Harlan's former home at 20 N Pine Circle, Belleair. Harlan sold the home in 1997 for $349,000 after the couple married. Appraisers estimate it might sell for $750,000 today.
Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith, the man whose job is understanding home values inside-out, still kicks himself over 20 N Pine Circle.
He and his wife, former Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Catherine Harlan, sold the Belleair waterfront residence for $349,000 after they got married in 1997.
In 1999, the 2,200-square-foot home, with two patios, a dock and a view of the Intracoastal Waterway, sold again, this time for $475,000 to Clearwater allergist Dr. J. Wayne Phillips.
Today Smith said his appraisers estimate that 20 N Pine Circle would probably sell for $750,000 - more than double what he and Harlan sold it for seven years ago.
"God, we should have saved it," Smith says. "You don't win them all."
But in today's real estate market, sellers seem to win a lot. And they don't have to be savvy land speculators to make money.
From 1998 to July 2003, the median sales price for single family homes jumped 38 percent in north and mid Pinellas, from $114,500 to $158,450, a Times analysis of sales figures shows. During the same time, the median home price for the rest of the county rose 54 percent. But that difference may merely reflect that home prices in south Pinellas had more catching up to do. Here, the median home price as of July 2003 was $33,550 higher than in south Pinellas.
And in this market, bargains are increasingly few and far between. Homes that sold for $100,000 in 1998 are now priced at $130,000, real estate agents say.
But it's property on the water and near golf courses that has seen the most dramatic spike. There, home prices have in some cases more than doubled, making sellers happy and sending budget-minded home buyers elsewhere.
"If you take a map, look at where the high home prices are," Smith said. "I could bet you there's a golf course or water nearby."
of living (here): Research home prices
Home prices in the northeast corner of the county, where there are three golf courses and not much else, have risen more than $100,000 in five years, from $175,500 to $277,750. In Crystal Beach, the median home price has more than doubled since 1998, from $120,700 to $290,000.
Many real estate agents expect the increases to continue.
The lack of developable land means there's no more room for another mega-development like Lansbrook. Now the county's housing supply can't keep up with the surging demand.
"We're built out," said Alan Riley, chairman of the Pinellas Realtor organization. "We're not able to replace the inventory."
So what's here becomes more expensive.
"We're still doing small-scale developments, five to 10 homes," Riley said. "But really, there's a much greater emphasis on remodeling, rehabbing and rebuilding.
"In a heartbeat, that increases value."
"Why not sell?'
While buyers pay a premium to be on the water or live a sand wedge from the fairway, median home sales prices also have jumped in areas that are landlocked or were once considered affordable.
For instance, the price of a home in Tarpon Springs today is $163,000, a 68 percent increase over five years. Near downtown Clearwater, the median home price stands at $108,500 today, $40,500 more than the same home cost in 1998. In Belleair Bluffs, a home today costs $176,500, 63 percent higher than in 1998.
And as sellers cash out, they are rolling their windfalls into bigger homes or lifestyle changes.
Michael Macrini and Shannon H. Crump didn't live on a golf course or near the water, but that didn't stop the couple from selling the Oldsmar home they purchased in 2000 for a $68,500 profit last November.
Macrini and Crump decided to build a bigger home in Hillsborough County with the extra cash. Now they're talking about adding a pool.
But before long, they plan on selling that home, too, with the expectation of another big payout.
"There's more money made in the first five years than at any other time," Crump, 32, said. "Why not sell again?"
Diane McNerney, a 56-year-old nurse practitioner, did minor alterations to her home in the Skycrest neighborhood, a middle class area east of downtown Clearwater. She bought the house in 2000 for $85,000, then added new doors, replaced the kitchen countertops and remodeled a mud room off the garage.
When she chose to sell to move closer to work last July, her home was off the market in three days, selling for $126,500 - a tidy $41,500 profit.
"I didn't think it would be that easy," McNerney said. "I knew it would sell quickly, because it was a beautiful house, but not that quick."
Affordable? Not for some
Amid this land rush, $100,000 isn't buying as much house as it once did, leaving some potential homeowners stuck renting or in an endless search for unattainable bargains, real estate agents say.
"Some people are looking for price ranges that don't exist anymore," said Joe Maceda, a real estate agent with Select Properties. "Sometimes they give in and pay a little more. Sometimes they give up."
In the areas of north and mid Pinellas with enough sales to establish a trend, home sales prices rose more than 30 percent since 1998. The exception is the Coachman/Sunset Point area, a part of eastern Clearwater between Alligator Creek and Enterprise Road. There, growth was 21 percent. But even in that neighborhood, the median sales price through July 2003 was $134,900, out of reach of many potential buyers.
"There are a lot of home buyers in the low-income bracket that are discouraged," said Jerry Spilatro, executive director of the Community Service Foundation, a nonprofit agency that helps people find affordable housing. "They're looking for a $50,000 house, and they're not finding it."
But Spilatro said that owning a home in today's vibrant market remains possible for even low-to-middle income buyers. The cities of Clearwater and Largo have programs that offer down payment assistance. The county does, too. All told, a home buyer who qualifies could receive about $10,000 in loans to help make a down payment.
Plus, the median home price in four areas examined by the Times is at or near $100,000. In the area that includes downtown Clearwater and Greenwood, for example, the median home sales price through July 2003 was $108,000. In the Ridgecrest neighborhood of Largo, it was $80,000. More than half of the homes in two other areas - High Point and Historic Largo, which stretches along Clearwater-Largo Road north of Eighth Avenue SW - sold for under $100,000 through the first seven months of last year as well.
"There are options," Spilatro said. "But they now seem harder to find."
Real estate agents suggest looking in older neighborhoods for lower-priced housing. They say areas in Dunedin, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs and Largo all offer good values in certain places. But be warned, some homes could require a lot of maintenance.
"If you do your homework and if you understand what the marketplace is all about, $125-175,000 is doable," said Riley, the chair of the county's Realtor association. "Combined with the lower interest rates, great incentive programs, a lot of people are still able to get into houses.
"But when you find what you want, you better move quick. If it's affordable, it's not going to be around long."