Strong buyer interest creates higher home sales in Manatee, Sarasota

MANATEE — A strong resurgence in buyer interest has pushed existing home prices on a steady climb, also reducing inventory in March to some of the most healthy levels since the bust.

The momentum comes during a month that’s typically one of the best for the housing market, as seasonal residents rush to buy vacation homes before returning north for the summer.

But experts say the continuing progress also is a sign the market is experiencing a full-fledged recovery, albeit slowly.“Southwest Florida’s housing market has fallen so far, there’s nowhere to go but up,” said John Silvia, managing director and the chief economist for Wells Fargo. “Depending on how you look at it, that’s mostly good news.”

Sales in Sarasota County in March reached their highest numbers in seven years, with 831 total properties changing hands over the month. That’s the most since September 2005, according to the Sarasota Association of Realtors.

That mark was anchored by 596 single-family home transactions, a 44 percent jump from February and 3 percent climb from the same time last year.

Sarasota also saw its median sales price grow 10 percent over the year to $174,900 in March. The county is down to just 4.8 months worth of existing single-family home inventory, association records show.

In Manatee, the numbers weren’t quite as strong.

Despite pending sales ballooning 29 percent in March, the Manatee reported 244 closed sales, an increase of 18 percent from February but down 6.2 percent from a year ago, according to the Manatee Association of Realtors. Total sales of properties in Manatee were 402.

Similar to Sarasota, the median sales price of $181,500 in Manatee was 19 percent higher than the same time last year. The numbers of homes for sales have slimmed by nearly one-third during the past 12 months, with 5.2 months of existing supply.

“The recovery is happening though not at a breakout pace,” Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, said in a statement. “Existing-home sales are moving up and down in a fairly narrow range that is well above the level of activity during the first half of last year. With job growth, low interest rates, bargain home prices and an improving economy, the pent-up demand is coming to market and we expect housing to be notably better this year.”

Across the country, existing-home sales eased 2.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.48 million units in March. That tally, however, is 5.2 percent above the pace of last year, according to figures released by NAR today.

The U.S. median home price was $163,800, up 2.5 percent from March 2011.

For more on this story, check later for updates.

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman