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Area home sales, prices up in March

MANATEE — Local housing prices are becoming too cheap for buyers to resist, according to sales data released Thursday.

Sales of existing single-family homes in the Sarasota-Manatee market rose in March, driven largely by more investors and first-time homebuyers taking advantage of deep discounts, the Florida Association of Realtors said.

Perhaps more significantly, the typical Sarasota-Manatee home sold for more money in March than in February.

Local real-estate agents called the sales and price upticks hopeful signs, but were hesitant to call it the beginning of a recovery because the market remains volatile.

“It’s a little too early yet,” said Helen Robinson, president and owner of Bayshore Realty. “We need to go through the summer to determine that.”

The Florida Association of Realtors’ data covers only home sales handled by Realtors, which account for most, but not all, transactions.

It said local Realtors sold 765 pre-owned single-family area homes in March. That’s 8 percent more than the 709 sold in March 2008 and 35 percent more than the 566 sold in February 2009.

The median sales price — the point where half sold for more, and half for less — hit $150,000 last month. While that’s down 37 percent from March 2008’s $239,300 midpoint, it was up 4.2 percent from $144,000 in February.

Statewide, year-over-year sales rose for the seventh straight month, FAR said. The 30 percent sales increase from March 2008 to March 2009 was driven by gains in Florida’s largest markets, including Fort Myers-Cape Coral, Miami and Orlando.

March’s statewide median sales price of $141,300 reflected a 30-percent decline from a year earlier, when it stood at $201,700.

Florida’s condominium market also showed signs of renewed life last month, but not in Sarasota-Manatee.

While Florida condo sales rose 25 percent statewide, it fell by 28 percent locally. Both saw median condo sales prices fall by about the same percentage: 37 percent to $108,700 in Florida, 32 percent to $129,000 in Sarasota-Manatee.

Florida outperformed the nation, where sales of existing homes — including condos and townhouses — fell 3 percent to an annual rate of 4.57 million units in March from a downwardly revised 4.71 million units in February, the National Association of Realtors said. March’s pace was 7.1 percent below March 2008’s annual pace of 4.92 million units.

The sales drop was “a little disappointing” given near record-low mortgage rates and low housing prices, said Lawrence Yun, the national group’s chief economist.

But tempering that disappointment was a stronger-than-expected rise in the national median sales price. It was $175,200 in March compared to $168,200 in February, a 4-percent jump that was 2 1/2 times larger than the historical average between the two months.

First-time homebuyers accounted for more than half of March sales, and Realtors are getting more calls from others looking to take advantage of an $8,000 tax credit, Yun said. That should boost early-summer sales figures, he said.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.