December home sales fall 41 percent

However, sales figures released Thursday show that prices have remained stable.

Published January 26, 2007

The chill that has blown across the housing market, driving down sales 8.4 percent last year nationwide, absolutely froze the flow of existing home sales locally.

In 2006, the Tampa Bay area suffered a dramatic 35 percent drop in single-family home sales. The year ended on a particularly sour note, with December sales plunging 41 percent.

While the national rate of decline was the worst in 24 years, veterans of the Tampa Bay area's real estate industry said they'd have to go much farther back to top December's poor performance.

"I've been in real estate about 33 years, and that's probably the most significant drop I can remember," said Phil Rogers, a Pinellas real estate agent. "Of course, the last few years we've had historic sales."

If there was any good news in the home sales figures released Thursday, it was in the stability of home prices despite the anemic market.

In the Tampa Bay area, the median home sales price was up 14 percent for the year, to $229,100. The median price of condos, which also saw a 35 percent decline in sales in 2006, inched up just 3 percent, to $172,300.

Local home prices still look like a bargain compared to Florida's median sales price of $248,300, up 6 percent in 2006. Statewide sales of single-family homes dropped 28 percent last year. The Tampa Bay area tied for third-worst performance with Daytona Beach, behind Naples and West Palm Beach.

Ann Guiberson, chief executive of the Pinellas Realtor Organization, said Florida's coastal areas suffered most in the downturn. "I think the drag of condos also affected single-family sales," she said.

Although Wachovia Corp. economist Mark Vitner said Wednesday that he didn't think the housing market has hit bottom, National Association of Realtors' economist David Lereah was more hopeful. He noted that the 0.8 percent drop in nationwide sales in December came after two straight months of improving figures.

"With fingers and toes crossed, it appears that we have hit bottom in the existing home market," he said.

Lereah also stressed that the housing slowdown in 2006 came after a five-year boom in the market. That means that nationwide, it was still the third-strongest year on record for existing-home sales.

Such optimism was echoed by Nancy Riley, president of the Florida Association of Realtors, who said, "With mortgage rates continuing to remain historically low, stable home prices and, at last, some inventory, now is the time to take advantage of homeownership opportunities."

In Pinellas County, December's inventory of unsold single-family homes was 9,876, more than double what it was a year earlier. In Pasco County, condo listings nearly tripled from 2005, with 514 units on the market at year's end.

Guiberson of the Pinellas trade group said members have been reporting increased activity in January, usually a slow month for sales. "The price may stay up, but buyers can get lots of concessions," she said.

Information from Times files was used in this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or 727892-2996.