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Bradenton-Sarasota home sales, prices continue rise

MANATEE — The local housing market’s recovery passed another milestone in March, according to sales figures released Thursday.

Bradenton and Sarasota Realtors sold 1,055 existing single-family homes last month, a 38-percent increase from the same month a year ago, the Florida Realtors trade group said.

It was the ninth consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains. It also was the first time since August 2005 — the tail end of the housing boom — that local Realtors handled more than 1,000 sales in a single month.

“It’s very refreshing,” Cindy Greco of Wagner Realty, president of the Manatee Association of Realtors, said of the latest sales report. “You can just feel that the market is stabilizing. The signs are there.”

Among them sales prices, which have fluctuated within a narrow $15,000 range in recent months after steadily declining by upwards of $25,000 a month for more than three years. The local median sales price was $163,800 last month, up 6 percent from February and 9 percent from March 2009, the trade group said.

Foreclosures and short sales continue to weigh down prices, which now are about half of their 2005 peak. But those prices, along with low mortgage rates and a pair of federal tax credits, are tempting buyers and spurring sales, local agents say.

“You’ve got a really good combination of things,” said Greg Owens, a listing agent at Keller Williams on the Water in Palmetto. “It’s like a good perfect storm as opposed to a bad perfect storm.”

The average interest rate for a traditional 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 5.07 percent this week, Freddie Mac said Thursday. Interest rates hit a record-low 4.71 percent in late December.

The tax credits — up to $8,000 for first-time buyers and up to $6,500 for current homeowners who buy and move into another home — also have “lit a fire under a lot of people who otherwise would have waited,” Greco said.

But the tax credit’s boost hasn’t been felt everywhere: Agents who specialize in Anna Maria Island properties said it has had a negligible impact on their business.

“It really didn’t do anything because of the type of market we have out here on the island,” said Liz Blandford, an Island Real Estate broker/associate. “This is more of a luxury, second-home market.”

Nevertheless, March activity was “up, up, up” throughout the island, said John van Zandt, an Island Real Estate associate. “People believe we may be near the bottom and they’d better buy now.”

The credits expire April 30, so agents and market-watchers are expecting April sales to be strong as well. There were 541 Manatee single-family homes under contract — a strong indicator of future sales — in March, more than double the 233 recorded in March 2009, according to data compiled for the local Realtors association.

Local condo sales also rose by 69 percent to 382 units sold in March. The median sales price rose 13 percent to $146,400.

Florida home sales rose by 24 percent, while they rose by 6.8 percent nationally, the National Association of Realtors said.

The national sales picture was brighter than expected, reversing three months of declines as government incentives drew in buyers and kicked off what’s expected to be a strong spring selling season.

Sales of previously occupied homes rose 6.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.35 million last month, the highest level since December, the national Realtors group said. February’s sales figures were revised downward slightly to 5.01 million.

“The spring selling season will be a success and probably the most active we’re seen in years,” said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group.

Sales had been expected to rise 5.2 percent to 5.28 million, according to economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters.

The results show the housing market is stabilizing after a devastating bust. But the true test will be whether the market can stand on its own after federal tax credits expire at the end of this month.

Sales rose in every region, surging more than 7 percent in the Midwest and South, 6.6 percent in the West and 6 percent in the Northeast.

“It’s a very broad-based recovery,” said Lawrence Yun, the Realtors’ chief economist.

The U.S. median sales price was $170,700, up almost 4 percent from $164,600 a month earlier and nearly unchanged from $170,000 in March 2009.

The inventory of unsold homes on the market was up 1.5 percent at 3.6 million. That’s an eight-month supply at the current sales pace.

Sales nationally had declined over the winter, eroding gains made last fall and summer. The downward direction troubled economists because the government has taken unprecedented steps to support the housing sector.

For several months, home shoppers didn’t feel rushed after lawmakers extended the deadline to qualify for tax incentives. But now time is running out. Buyers must sign contract offers by April 30 to qualify, and real estate agents say that’s spurring sales.

The Realtors group is not pushing for another extension of the tax credit. Yun said he believes there will be enough demand in the second half of the year without a government subsidy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.