The affordable single family home market is slipping away

MANATEE -- Million dollar homes always grab headlines when they sell in Manatee and Sarasota counties. Blame Robin Leach for that one.

Big, expensive homes tend to have pretty good stories behind them that involve celebrities, wealthy buyers and sellers and, from time to time, colossal bankruptcies and foreclosures. It's also pretty fun to fantasize about having a home on the beach with a pool and elevator.

But away from the glitz of high-priced properties, there are thousands of home buyers out in our communities who just want to find single-family homes they can actually afford. Generally priced under $225,000, these homes are becoming more rare on the real estate market, according to a recent statistical study.

The reason for this isn't that homes in this price range are off the market. What's actually happening is prices are rising on these homes, taking them out of range for people with modest incomes.

I saw this myself last year when my wife and I closed on one of the last homes that could be had for under $200,000 in the small Palm Aire neighborhood we live in. Since then, we've watched with morbid interest as our neighbors have put their homes on the market for $300,000 or even $400,000.

This week, I took a look at what was for sale near my house and found several listings between $214,000 and $399,000. That's no great surprise. Median home prices are up over 17 percent in the past year in Manatee County, well beyond the approximately 2-percent national growth in incomes over the same period.

Elsewhere in the county, a single-family home priced between $125,000 and $225,000 seems to be a rarity. I looked at a county-generated listing of everything in this price range that sold early in May and found those buyers generally got a vacant lot or a condo.

There are a few affordable existing homes on the market, but they might not be selling as homes to working people. Leah Secondo, a real estate agent with Michael Saunders & Co. in Bradenton, has sold six in the above-mentioned price range this year. All but two went for cash.

Talk to any agent in town and they'll label that buying profile with one of two words: "Investor" or "snowbird."

What's the future for the housing market? We're already seeing it. The local real estate industry is seeing sales growth in the higher-priced homes categories, particularly those priced over $1 million. At the same time, apartments are going up as quickly as developers can build them as many people choose renting over buying.

After the recession and the housing market crash, the hope among putative home sellers and real estate professionals was that prices would build back slowly so as not to outstrip buyers' ability to afford them. So much for that.

With any luck, the price boosts will slow soon. But if not, there's always the next crash.