Lee existing home sales rose 64 percent in November

Sales of Lee County existing homes increased 64 percent in November as prices continued to tumble.Realtors assisted in the selling of 600 homes in Lee County in November, up from 365 in November 2007.The median sales price fell 53 percent to $106,100, from $228,100.

Condominium sales fell 21 percent to 85, down from 107 in November 2007. The median condo price also fell, to $136,200, down 20 percent since November 2007.Statewide, existing home sales continued to rise in November, as prices fell sharply.

Realtors helped sell 8,571 homes in November, a 4 percent increase compared to the same period a year ago, data released by the Florida Association of Realtors.The median sales price for existing homes last month was $158,300; a year ago, it was $217,000, a 27 percent decrease.

Although I cannot predict a bottom of this market, prices are low and sales are increasing. Something to keep in mind.

Moratorium on Home Foreclosures Announced

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist and representatives of Florida lending institutions today announced a 45-day moratorium on home foreclosures.
Meanwhile, statistics released today showed that foreclosure filings dropped sharply to 1,681 in Lee County in November while permits issued for single-family homes in the unincorporated county fell to a record low of 14. Crist called a news conference with Alex Sanchez, head of the Florida Bankers Association, and Aletta Shutes, representing the state’s credit unions, to proclaim the “voluntary” respite for troubled homeowners. They emphasized that the break only applies to homesteads, not people who purchased property as speculators. “This is to help people who really need help,” said Crist. “This is not for people who bought a lot of condos on spec.”About 30 percent of the foreclosure actions in Lee County in recent months have been homesteaded properties.
Mark Morris, president and CEO of Commerce Bank of Southwest Florida, said of Crist’s action that “his heart’s in the right place.”But, he said, “My concern ultimately is, ‘Does this ultimately delay the overall recovery by pushing it back a period of time?’ I can certainly understand over the holiday season not wanting to upset the homeowners in this particular time of need. I also worry about the fairness between not foreclosing on someone and the next-door neighbor who’s got a second job and trying to keep his payments current.”Morris noted that the county’s courts are clogged with foreclosures so any filed now would not result in someone actually losing a home until months after Christmas. “It’s a moot point.”
The number of foreclosure actions in Lee County in November was down from the all-time record of 2,665 in October, says a study by the Southwest Florida Real Estate Investors Association.
Single-family-home permits in the unincorporated county were down from a record low of 30 in October and 54 in November 2007, the county Department of Community Development says.There were six multifamily units permitted in the unincorporated county during November, compared to 52 the previous month and 10 in November 2007. Permits were issued for 10 new commercial buildings valued at $1.2 million in the unincorporated county, compared to $3.8 million the previous month. In November 2007, newly permitted commercial buildings were valued at $9.5 million.Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel compile their own permitting statistics.There were 4 permits pulled in the Cape and none in Fort Myers Beach. Numbers from Sanibel and Bonita Springs weren’t available this morning.Meanwhile, the county court system is starting a concerted effort this month to process more than 25,000 foreclosure lawsuits backed up in the system.Two circuit and four senior judges will start the process with a docket of 902 foreclosure cases Thursday. A recent typical day might have about 100 or more, said Wendy McCabe, civil supervisor.During the next three to four months, judges will try to work down the buildup caused by more than 2,000 foreclosure filings per month. Courtesy Fort Myers News Press.

Governor Crist Considers Halt on Home Foreclosures

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Gov. Charlie Crist said Monday he is considering ordering a moratorium on home foreclosures, "especially during the holidays."
In an informal gathering with reporters, Crist was asked what he thought of copying California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 90-day moratorium on home foreclosures.
"You have my office bugged or something? We've been talking about that for several days - even longer, actually. I think it would be a good thing to be able to do," he replied. "I want to be able to work with the banking industry and do it in a way that is not harmful to them, because we want them to continue to succeed, to continue to lend money, but we want to stop the foreclosures - especially during the holidays."
Asked whether he has legal authority to impose a moratorium, Crist said, "Well, I don't know. We'll see. Stay tuned."
Faced with a projected $2 billion-plus revenue shortage, Crist said he will consult House and Senate leaders about having a special legislative session on budget-cutting - and that he is skeptically open to some tax ideas. The Republican governor and GOP leadership of the Legislature have been adamantly opposed to any form of tax increases, preferring to use reserves and cut spending, but last Friday's long-anticipated revenue report has weakened that resolve.
The governor remained noncommittal on both holding a special session and putting tax increases on the table, if there is one. But he did not seem rigidly opposed to either idea, although he still prefers budget cuts and use of reserves first.
"I'm not sure. I'm trying to get the temperature of both the Senate and the House," Crist said. "I don't think it would be a bad idea, but it would be a bad idea to come here without a real agreement on what we would do when we got here." Courtesy Fort Myers News Press.

Median price falls below $150,000, Sales Up

Home prices continued to fall and sales continued to rise in Lee County in the third quarter, according to statistics released Tuesday by the Florida Association of Realtors.
A separate report by the National Association of Realtors said U.S. prices declined nationally 9 percent to $200,500 in the same period. Sales fell in all but four states: Nevada, California, Arizona and Virginia.
The median price of an existing Lee County single-family home sold with the help of a Realtor was $147,800, down 39 percent from $243,800 in the third quarter of 2007.
Sales increased 73 percent from 1,273 to 2,198 in the same period.
At the peak of the real estate boom in the county, the median single-family home sold for $322,300, more than twice what it is now.
For condominiums, the same trend was in effect: The number of sales rose 38 percent from 359 to 495 while the median price fell 17 percent from $232,800 to $193,900.
The trend of higher sales volume continued in October, said Steve Koffman, a real estate broker with Century 21 Sunbelt in Cape Coral.
For example, off-water homes in Cape Coral sold for a median price of $105,000, down 5 percent from September, he said.
Meanwhile, the number of off-water Cape homes sold was 337 in October, the highest monthly rate since 2004 except for September's 349.
Some investors are buying up homes to rent them but many buyers are "people who can afford a house at $85,000 who couldn't before," Koffman said.
People with good credit usually have no trouble getting financing but risk-sensitive bankers are turning down those with credit problems, he said. "If you've got questionable credit, you're not going to get a loan, you're just not."
Homes being put on the market at fire sale prices by lenders that took them back in foreclosure are behind the falling prices, which in turn attract more buyers, Koffman said.
The national association's report said that prices fell in 20 out of 152 metropolitan areas it tracks. Sales fell almost 8 percent.
Foreclosures and other distressed sales made up about 40 percent of transactions in the quarter nationally.
Top lawmakers threw their support Tuesday behind a proposal to use $24 billion in government money to help struggling borrowers, as reports showed U.S. home prices sinking in four out of five cities and home builders reported their worst-ever business outlook.
The national association's monthly market index, begun in January 1985, said that barometer tumbled five points to nine in November, reflecting growing worries about the U.S. financial crisis, rising unemployment and weakening consumer confidence.
Index readings higher than 50 indicate positive sentiment about the market. But the index has drifted below 50 since May 2006 and below 20 since April.
With a clear and present threat to the U.S. economy, Democrats stepped up pressure on the Bush administration to direct taxpayer money to help more troubled borrowers. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said "it is essential" to use some of the money in the government's $700 billion financial rescue program to stem the tide of foreclosures. Courtesy Associated Press, News-Press.

Foreclosures continue to flood Lee County

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Foreclosures continued to flood Lee County's real estate market at a record rate in October as new construction remained sparse.
There were 2,665 foreclosure filings in October, up about 8 percent from the previous high of 2,467 in July, according to numbers compiled by the Southwest Florida Real Estate Investors Association and Lee County.
At the same time, only about 86 permits for single-family homes were issued in Lee - including a record low of 30 permits for unincorporated Lee County. Those numbers do not include Fort Myers Beach numbers, which weren't available Monday.
A year ago, the total was 119, and in September, 68 permits were issued.
The foreclosure filings may be gaining momentum as banks work to clear failed loans off the books amid federal bailout efforts, said Jeff Tumbarello, a
mortgage broker and president of the investors association.
"It's going to end at some point," Tumbarello said. "They can't foreclose on every home in Lee County."
The faster foreclosures work through the system, the better for Lee County's real estate market, said Patti Pietroniro, Realtor with Cypress Realty in Fort Myers. For now, those foreclosed homes are dominating the unsold inventory, she said.
"We are seeing the foreclosures starting to be soaked up and eventually we will begin to see home values start to go up again," Pietroniro said. "We won't see a full recovery until we get those foreclosures cleared out."
But North Fort Myers resident Regina Touchstone, 43, said working to resolve foreclosures quickly tightens the vice on struggling homeowners.
Touchstone and her husband, Shayne, were served with a foreclosure notice last week.
"The bank would rather work out a short sale with someone who has nothing invested in a house than work with a family that has their whole life invested in it," Touchstone said.
The family started falling behind on their payments in May, when work dried up at their pool company. They tried to restructure their loan, but the mortgage company rejected that effort, Regina Touchstone said.
"Our home has been on the market for six months and the last letter they sent told us to put our home on the market," she said. "It's like they aren't even listening to us."
At the end of September, there was a 3.5-month supply of finished vacant housing inventory in Lee and Collier counties at the current move-in pace. A normal months-of-supply level of finished vacant units in a healthy market is between 1.5 and 2.5 months, said Bradley F. Hunter, who leads Metrostudy's market research operations in Southwest Florida.
Metrostudy, a market research company, released their quarterly analysis Monday.
In the quarter, the number of housing units under construction increased from 654 to 753 units after seven consecutive quarters of decline.
Bob Knight, partner in Cape Coral-based Paul Homes and president of the Lee Building Industry Association, said buyer interest is picking up.
"We are starting to hear from some customers who already own lots and want to build on their own lot or who are looking to buy land and build," Knight said. "They realize this is probably the bottom, and it is going to bounce around the bottom for a while, but that is where the opportunity is."
Unincorporated Lee County's record low of 30 single-family home permits was matched by 30 permits in Fort Myers. There were 15 in Cape Coral, eight in Bonita Springs and three on Sanibel.
In unincorporated Lee, the value was up 69 percent from September's $8.8 million, due primarily to a home valued at $3.8 million and another valued at $1.6 million, according to Lee County's Community Development office.
There were 52 multifamily units permitted in unincorporated Lee during October, compared to six the previous month and 30 in October 2007.
One project, Majestic Palms south of Fort Myers, accounted for 40 units.
Permits were issued for 10 new commercial buildings valued at $3.8 million in unincorporated Lee County, compared to $3.2 million the previous month.

Foreclosures drive sales up, at lower prices!

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Prices for existing homes in Lee County kept dropping and sales spiked in September as bank foreclosures rejuvenated the residential market, according to statistics released Friday.
There were 746 houses sold with the help of a Realtor in September, up 9 percent from 684 in August, according to a report issued by the Florida Association of Realtors.
Meanwhile, the median price dropped 4 percent to $141,400 in September from $146,900 in August. That’s 56 percent down from the all-time high of $322,300 in December 2005.
The picture was much the same around the country.
The National Association of Realtors said in a separate report Friday sales of existing homes rose by 5.5 percent in September compared with August, the best showing since a 5.6 percent increase in July 2003, during the five-year housing boom. The median sales price dropped to $191,600, down by 9 percent from a year ago.
In Lee County the trends are being driven by banks selling houses they’ve taken back in foreclosure, said real estate agent Steve Koffman of Century 21 Sunbelt Realty in Cape Coral.
“They’re very clearly not wanting to own and carry this inventory,” he said. “We’ve had them say recently, ‘Give us a price to sell in 30 days.’”
Some banks are even more aggressive about selling, Koffman said. “We had one recently say to a teammate, ‘We want to sell in two weeks for cash.’ We put it on the market Friday and we had 15 offers by Monday.”
The result has been sales by lenders are accounting for a larger share of the market, he said.
In September, for example, 38 percent of the single-family houses sold were foreclosures even though only 2,439 or 17 percent of 14,029 houses currently on the market are foreclosure properties.
Foreclosures have had little effect on condominiums because “90 percent of the foreclosures were for single-family homes,” said real estate agent Steve Luta of Market America Realty and Investments in Cape Coral. There were 153 condos sold in September, down 9 percent from 168 in August.
Nationally, inventories of unsold existing homes dropped by 1.6 percent in September to 4.27 million units which would be a 9.9 months supply at the September sales pace, still a historically high level.
Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors, said a sales turnaround first seen in California was beginning to broaden to other regions of the country including Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Rhode Island.
In a further effort to bolster the housing market and deal with record high levels of mortgage defaults, Sheila Bair, the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is pushing Treasury to include in the $700 billion rescue package for the financial system a new program to prevent more mortgage foreclosures.
Un4der Bair’s proposal, the government would provide guarantees for mortgages that have been reworked by banks to lower payment schedules to more affordable levels.
The rise in September sales pushed activity to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.18 million units last month. Courtesy of Fort Myers News Press

Existing Home Sales Surge

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Lee County’s existing home sales shot up in August, as the price of a home dropped more than $100,000.
The 685 homes sold with the help of a Realtor was up 32 percent from August 2007 when 520 homes were sold. It’s the largest year-over-year percentage gain in the state, according to the Florida Association of Realtors.
Only the Tampa-St-Petersburg-Clearwater area, Jacksonville and Orlando sold more homes in August.
However, the median price dropped 41 percent, from $250,800 to $146,900. It was $154,900 a month earlier. The numbers were also down from July’s 768 reported sales.
Collier numbers weren’t available but Charlotte saw a drop in both sales and prices in August: sales dropped 21 percent from 223 to 176, while the median price dropped 26 percent to $138,100 from $186,500 a year ago.
“Despite economic uncertainty and the start of the school year, which impacts August home sales, a number of Florida’s metro areas continue to report an upswing in housing activity,’’ said Chuck Bonfiglio, association president. “Florida Realtors are noticing signs that investors think the market has reached bottom in many areas, and they are preparing to jump in while prices remain below value. Industry analysts hope that the federal government’s financial rescue plan will boost the housing market and help restore confidence.’’
A total of 10,847 existing homes sold statewide last month while 11,282 homes sold in August 2007, a decrease of 4 percent in the year-to-year comparison, according to FAR. Florida’s median sales price for existing homes last month was $186,900; a year ago, it was $234,100, a 20 percent decrease. It’s still up from five years ago, when the statewide median sales price for single-family homes was $163,600.
The latest housing outlook from the National Association of Realtors predicts that existing home sales nationwide will improve in the coming months, though the speed and timing of a recovery depends on local market conditions.
“Sales have picked up significantly in several Florida and California markets,’’ said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the national association. “Home prices generally follow sales trends after a few months of lag time. Still, inventory remains high in many parts of the country and will require time to fully absorb. We expect more balanced conditions in 2009 and will eventually return to normal long-term appreciation patterns."Condo sales also showed improvement in Lee, despite a statewide drop. The numbers of sales increased from 128 to 168 , while the median price dropped to $193,800 from $252,900. The numbers are down from July when there were 174 condo sales and the median price was $210,400.
Businessman Dave Eichen 43, of Howell, Mich., said he got a good deal on a condominium at the Bella Mar condominium on San Carlos Boulevard in south Fort Myers.
Eichen recently purchased the Dairy Queen in Fort Myers Beach and plans on splitting his time between Howell and here.
“We decided we’d be spending a time here so it makes sense with prices being so good.”
He paid $116,000 for the three-bedroom, two-bath condo — less than half what it would have gone for three years ago.
Nationally, sales of existing homes fell in August, but the number of unsold homes on the market also dropped sharply from the previous month’s record high.
The National Association of Realtors said Wednesday that sales fell 2.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.91 million units, from an upwardly revised pace of 5.02 million in July. Sales had been expected to fall by 1.6 percent, according to economists surveyed by Thomson/IFR.
There were 4.3 million unsold homes on the market, a 7 percent drop from the record set in July. It was the steepest drop in inventory since December 2006. At the current sales pace, it would take 10.4 months to sell all the properties.
Until the inventory level is reduced to more normal levels, analysts say, the housing slump is likely to persist. Inventories are being driven higher by a massive wave of mortgage foreclosures.
“We hope the downward trend in inventories continues,” Yun said. “Home prices will not stabilize as long as inventories remain high.”
Median prices — the point at which half of the homes sold for less and half for more — fell 9.5 percent from a year ago to $203,100, the largest price decline on records dating to 1999. Sales were 10.7 percent below last year’s levels.
The national decline in home values coupled with shaky lending standards during the real estate boom are the driving forces behind rising mortgage defaults and foreclosures. They have spurred a credit crisis that has shaken Wall Street to its core and caused the Bush administration to propose a $700 billion financial industry bailout.Yun said the trade group is sending a letter to Congress in support of the rescue plan. While buyers are pouncing on lower prices — especially in places like California, Florida and Nevada — sales are sluggish in formerly stable markets like the Pacific Northwest and Charlotte, N.C., he added. Courtesy of Fort Myers News Press

Lee County Foreclosures Drop Sharply in Lee County

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The number of foreclosure actions filed in Lee County dropped sharply in August, according to statistics released by the Southwest Florida Real Estate Association.

There were 2,156 foreclosures filed compared to a record 2,467 in July, a fall of 13 percent. There’s been a long runup in the number of foreclosures over the past two years as the bottom has fallen out of home prices in the county.In August 2007 there were 1,045 filed, and in August 2006 — when foreclosures were just starting to rise — there were only 146 .Home prices have fallen sharply, with the median price of an existing single-family home sold with the help of a Realtor reaching $154,900 in July, down 52 percent from the all-time record high of $322,300 set in December 2005. Courtesy of Fort Myers News Press.

Homes sales up, prices down in Lee County

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Lee County had more home sales even as prices fell in the second quarter of this year — a pattern typical of foreclosure-plagued markets like this one, according to data released today by the National Association of Realtors.

The median price of a Realtor-assisted existing home sale fell 28 percent in Lee County to $196,400 from $273,500 a year earlier while the number of sales rose 38 percent from 1,706 to 2,351 in the same period, according to a separate report released today by the Florida Association of Realtors.

For condominiums, the price fell 10 percent from $246,900 to $222,600 while the number of sales rose 15 percent from 457 to 527.

Median home prices fell in more than three-quarters of U.S. cities in the second quarter, the latest sign of the breadth of the housing market decline, according to the national data.

Nevertheless, home sales rose in areas where the market is flooded with foreclosures, indicating that borrowers are taking advantage of steep discounts.

Lee County led the nation in the rate of foreclosures in July with one in 64 households receiving a foreclosure filing during the month, according to a report released today by Irvine-based RealtyTrac. A record 2,467 foreclosures filed during July in the county, which is more than seven times the national average.

Florida single-family homes were off 16 percent in price from $241,200 to $203,000 while sales were off 6 percent from 37,407 to 35,178. Condominiums were off 16 percent from $215,300 to $181,100 while sales fell 10 percent from 12,585 to 11,343, according to the state report.

Nevada and California, battered by a housing market bust, were the only states to show sales gains in the second quarter compared with a year earlier, according to the national report.

Sales were up 18 percent in Nevada compared with last year, after median prices fell by nearly 24 percent in the Las Vegas area. Sales in California were up 3.7 percent.

Prices in Los Angeles, Riverside and Sacramento have plunged by 30 percent or more, according to the NAR’s data.

Nationally, sales fell by 16.3 percent in the second quarter compared with the same period a year ago.

In recent months, the biggest home sales gains “have been in some of the markets with the steepest and fastest price drops,” said Lawrence Yun, the trade group’s chief economist. “Buyers in these areas are responding to deeply discounted home prices.”

The Realtors group said median prices for existing single-family homes dropped in 115 of 150 metropolitan areas in the April-June period, while 35 metro areas saw prices increase.
Among the bright spots, prices of homes sold rose by more than 7 percent in Yakima, Wash., Binghamton, N.Y., Amarillo, Texas and Charleston, W.Va.

Nationally, the median home price — the point where half the homes sold for more and half for less — fell to $206,500 in the second quarter, down by 7.6 percent from the same period a year ago, when the median sales price was $205,700.

As foreclosures soar, banks and mortgage investors are also facing a pileup of foreclosed properties on their books and are cutting prices dramatically.

RealtyTrac said it had more than 750,000 foreclosed homes in its database of properties for sale, equal to about 17 percent of the 4.5 million U.S. homes that were up for sale in June.

Nationwide, more than 272,000 homes received at least one foreclosure-related notice in July, up 55 percent from about 175,000 in the same month last year and up 8 percent from June, RealtyTrac. said. That means one in every 464 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing last month. Courtesy news wires and Fort Myers News-Press

Property values still dropping across Florida

TALLAHASSEE - The values of homes, businesses and other properties across Florida declined $153 billion during the last year, and the murky economic picture isn't expected to improve until 2009, state officials said.
Total property values dropped an unprecedented 6 percent, double the figure economists had projected last year. The decline would have been worse if not for $55.6 billion spent on new construction, according to data reported by The Miami Herald in its Wednesday editions.
In Lee County, the median price of an existing single-family home sold with assistance of a Realtor was $198,900 in April, the last month for which numbers are available, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. That's down 37 percent from its all-time high of $322,300 in December 2005.
Next year, state property values are expected to drop another 4.92 percent. However, economists expect the situation to slowly improve after the slump.
Amy Baker, the Legislature's chief economist, told the paper that the state is seeing more "fire sales" with homes sold at low prices. She said it's better than the homes not selling at all.
"It's not a terrible thing," she said. "You want to see that."
Foreclosures are up across the country, but certain states, including Florida, have been particularly hard hit. Metropolitan areas in California and Florida made up 16 of the top 20 metro foreclosure rates in the second quarter, according to RealtyTrac Inc., a company that monitors default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions.
The real estate decline puts local governments and schools in a squeeze. They will see a 0.3 percent decrease in taxable value this year and 1.5 percent for schools in 2009. For schools, that adds up to $140 million lost statewide unless the Legislature increases the tax rate.
New construction that helps offset some of last year's decline is projected to decrease by almost 35 percent, or about $36.4 billion, for the 2009 tax rolls.
One measure being proposed on the Nov. 4 ballot would slash property taxes raised for schools in exchange for other new revenue. However, opinions are divided on how the proposal would affect the homebuilding industry. Some argue it will boost home sales while others contend they will end up paying more taxes on materials and services. Courtesy of Fort Myers News Press.

Lee County foreclosures at 2,467 record high

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July was another month of record foreclosures in Lee County and very little new construction of single-family homes.
There were 2,467 foreclosures last month, up 3 percent from the 2,390 foreclosures in June, while permits for new single-family homes could best be described as a mixed bag - up in Cape Coral, down almost everywhere else, according to numbers released Friday.
Not all is bad. People are taking advantage of bargains in the real estate market, giving hope Southwest Florida could soon stabilize itself, housing leaders said.
"Foreclosures are doing what they're doing, but the good news is that people are buying foreclosures, so at least there is a demand for these," said Jeff Tumbarello, director of the Southwest Florida Real Estate Investors Association, which tracks foreclosures.
"For every two deeds they take back, they've been selling one," Tumbarello said.
Still, the numbers paint an ugly picture even for the biggest optimist. In July 2007 there were 1,045 foreclosures. Last month's record figure was the fourth consecutive month foreclosures topped 2,000.
The gluttony of existing and foreclosed homes on the market isn't doing the construction industry any favors.
Community development administrators from Bonita Springs and county government - which includes Lehigh Acres, Estero, south Fort Myers and North Fort Myers - reported drops in the number of permits issued for new single-family homes in July.
Only Cape Coral had a bit of good news, reporting 22 permits for new single-family homes were issued in July. That's the third highest monthly total this fiscal year, which began in October.
"Foreclosures are being sold at prices new homes can't compete," said Jamie Pirrello, chief executive of Cape-based Vision Homes USA.
Even if there was more of a demand for new homes, builders would have a hard time securing financing to start new projects.
"It's tough to get construction loans, as it is tough to get mortgages, he said.
The community development offices reported:
• In Lee County, there were 49 permits issued for new single-family homes, down nearly 13 percent from June's 56. There were 119 permits in July of last year.
• 22 permits were issued in Cape Coral in July, up from the 14 in June. That is still, however, a 51 percent drop from July 2007 when 45 permits were issued.
• In Bonita Springs, only nine new permits were issued in July. Last month, it was double that, 18. This month's number, however, is not far off from July 2007, when 11 permits were issued.
• In Fort Myers Beach, there were no permits issued this month. None last month either and two in July 2007.
"I'd like to see an increase but until we see that inventory absorption I don't think you'll see too many permits, " said Mary Gibbs, head of Lee County's Department of Community Development. "It's been bumping along at the bottom for some time now." Courtesy of Fort Myers News Press

Number of home sales up - Prices lower

Fort Myers, FL – Single-family home sales across the Greater Fort Myers area rose again in June for the sixth consecutive month, according to the statistics released by the REALTOR® Association of Greater Fort Myers and the Beach, Inc. Sales of single-family homes rose by 53.2 percent on a year over year basis, with the number of closed sales at 717 compared to 468 last June.

While the median price of a single-family home dropped by 34 percent to $158,000 compared to $239,500 a year ago, it is apparent that buyers are deriving solid value from the properties on the market. Pending sales are up 80.1 percent with 1379 single family homes pending compared to 762 in June 2007.
“Buyers are benefiting from an attractive selection of housing inventory from which to choose along with historically low interest rates. Sales demand in the Greater Fort Myers area is continuing to grow as housing prices return to a more affordable range,” said Ron Carpenter, president of the REALTOR® Association. "We are very pleased with the upward trend in home sales over the past six months and we're expecting that, as prices have become more reasonable, more buyers will realize that now really is a great time to buy a home."

Housing permits in Lee County tumble

The slow rise in permits for single-family homes in Lee County was short-lived.

Cape Coral, which saw an increase the past two months, had the biggest drop. The city's building department issued 14 permits, down 59 percent from the 34 issued in May and a drop of 80 percent from the 69 issued in June 2007, city spokeswoman Connie Barron said.
In unincorporated Lee County, Bonita Springs and Fort Myers Beach, 74 permits were issued. That's a 7.5 percent drop from the previous five-month high of 80 in May. June's total was an 83 percent decrease from the 448 issued in June 2007.
Large inventories of existing and foreclosed homes continues to limit activity in the new home market.
The number of foreclosure actions last month in Lee County was 2,390, which is down 2 percent from the 2,450 in May. But it is up 147 percent from the 968 foreclosure actions in June 2007, said Jeff Tumbarello, director of the Southwest Florida Real Estate Investors Association, which tracks those numbers.
Lee County Department of Community Development spokeswoman Joan LaGuardia attributed the large number of permits issued in June 2007 to a rush to beat a deadline to qualify for a lower road impact fee.
Bonita Springs accounted for 18 of Lee's permits, down from 32 in May. Lehigh Acres had eight single-family home permits, up from six in May, Laguardia said.
"Obviously, we do not see the concentration of building in Lehigh that we saw in the previous two years," LaGuardia said. "It's spread pretty evenly throughout unincorporated Lee County."
Permit numbers for Fort Myers, which is counted separately, were not available Tuesday.
Cape Coral accounted for more than a third of the county's foreclosure actions, with 878 last month. Lehigh Acres had 560, Tumbarello said.
The drop in new-home permits did not surprise area home builders, nor did Cape Coral's steeper decline in permits.
"My attitude has been that Cape Coral comes back first, in comparison to Lehigh Acres," said Jamie Pirrello, chief executive of Cape-based Vision Homes USA. "But there are a number of master-planned communities throughout Lee County. ... I wouldn't doubt that a bunch of the permits are being pulled in the master-planned communities."
Michael Gay, general manager of the Fort Myers division of Adams Homes, said his company is concentrating on clearing out already-built houses in Lee County.
"We haven't pulled a new permit in 18 months or two years," he said. "If you can't go out and build a house and make a profit, there's no sense doing it."
Gay said that 56 finished Adams homes, mostly in Cape Coral, were sold in June, leaving 44 to be sold.
Low prices generated by homes that have been foreclosed on by banks and other lenders are the main reason not so many new homes are being built these days.
Tumbarello said the trend in Lee County foreclosures is a direct reflection of the drop in new-home construction since 2006. He added that banks lost an average of $170,000 per mortgage on which they foreclosed.
Gay doesn't think he will see anything like the good old days of the early 2000s.
"I think it will be several, several, several years before we see something like that again," Gay said. "The first step is to return back to a normal market, with gradual increases of less than 10 percent. Courtesy Fort Myers News Press

Lee's taxable property values see historic drop

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Taxable property values tumbled 12.4 percent across the county compared with last year, a reflection of the nationwide housing crunch.Cape Coral took the roughest knock, down 26.6 percent in taxable value. The Lehigh Acres area is down 23 percent. Captiva and Boca Grande were the only areas to see an increase at 3 and .4 percent, respectively.
"I wasn’t surprised," Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson said. "It was sort of a gut feeling I was having."Wilkinson said a drop in taxable value year-over-year has not happened in the past 50 years and may have only occurred during the Depression.
Preliminary figures released Monday show taxable values dropped to $84.5 billion, down $11.9 billion. Market values, or the value the property would sell on the open market, also fell 12 percent to $109.9 billion.
"It’s within the range that we anticipated. We thought it was going to be in the 10 to 20 percent range," said Dinah Lewis, Lee budget director. "We can manage through this. It does mean a reduction in revenue and it means we have to be careful with expenditures."Delayed road projects, fewer library materials and cuts in bus routes are likely this coming year.Last year, values increased 6 percent.
In 2006, they jumped 40 percent.Lee government officials and those in the county’s five cities and 17 independent fire districts awaited the figures. Those officials will continue sculpting their budgets through September. Local lawmakers will either face budget cuts or consider increasing the tax rate to cover the shortfall.It was a challenging year for county appraisers because the housing market crash made finding comparable sales difficult.
In 2006, there were 8,518 existing single-family homes sold in Lee County with the assistance of a Realtor, and in 2007, there were 5,383, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. That’s a 37 percent decrease.The private sector saw this coming."This is the worst I’ve seen it in 30 years (as a Realtor in Southwest Florida) and I’ve gone through three recessions," said Ed Bonkowski, referring to today’s lean times as well the economic slumps of the early 1980s and 1990s. "And we’re not out of it yet."The problem, he said, is the inventory of homes, more than 3,500 of them."The lenders will have to sell below market value," Bonkowski said. "While (the properties) are out there, it’s going to be an albatross on everybody’s neck."Lee County will see among the most significant fall in value in the state but not the highest, Wilkinson said. Charlotte County reported a 22 percent decline. Collier County late last week reported a 4 percent slump, that county’s first drop in 53 years. Collier has more high-end property, which Wilkinson said is more resilient.
Wilkinson will submit the figures to the Florida Department of Revenue on July 1. Truth In Millage (TRIM) notices, a snapshot of each property owner’s tax bill, will be mailed in August.A lower tax roll also means the Lee County School District will absorb another crushing blow. Budget director Ami Desamours said the Legislature estimated the drop at 4 percent, a figure she used in early capital budget planning."That’s pretty big, as much as $20 million a year," said Desamours, who will present the new data to school board members at today’s meeting. — The News-Press staff writer Dave Breitenstein contributed to this report.

Foreclosures haunt homeowners groups in Lee County

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Many residents aren’t able to submit dues

Foreclosures are rocking not just the thousands of homeowners in Lee County, but the homeowners associations that represent them.

The reason: Financially strapped residents or, in many cases, the lack of residents because of the growing foreclosures, simply aren’t paying their bills.

• At Renaissance, a Fort Myers condominium that recently sent out bills for a $1,000 special assessment, just 20 percent of the owners ponied up.

• The homeowners association at Stoneybrook at Gateway — which paid for mulch to spruce up some of the abandoned homes — now faces cuts of about $130,000 from its $1.3 million budget.

• Condo fees at Tuscany Gardens condominium in south Fort Myers have increased 20 percent in the last year just to cover costs.

A lot is at stake: More than 60 million Americans live in an estimated 300,000 homeowner associations, condominium communities, cooperatives and other planned developments, up from 45 million residents in 223,000 communities in 2000, according to the Alexandria, Va.-based Community Associations Institute, which represents and provides information to homeowners and professionals who run community and condominium associations.
And these are hard times for homeowners and associations alike, an institute spokesman said.

“It’s an issue everywhere,” said Frank Rathbun, vice president for communications. “I think it’s throughout the country but we haven’t done any statistical analysis on it.”

It’s Simple economics.

“Someone who has either been foreclosed on or lost his or her job is probably a lot less likely to be paying assessments,” Rathbun said. “That puts the burden on the association to provide the services and amenities residents expect.”

It also means those remaining residents are forced to pay a greater share of the expense.

Locally, the associations’ shaky finances are a result of the collapse of the Lee County real estate market and the economy in general.

Foreclosures hit a record 2,160 in April as home prices collapsed: down 37 percent in April to $200,300 from an all-time high of $322,300 in December 2005. Meanwhile, unemployment was 6.4 percent, up from 3.7 percent a year earlier.

In Southwest Florida, non-payment of fees is a problem mainly for newer projects that were built or converted from rentals in the real estate boom that reached its height in December 2005, said Joe Adams, who’s in charge of the Becker & Poliakoff office in Fort Myers and also writes a column on condo law for The News-Press.

“It’s a huge problem,” he said. “It’s not really just in conversions, but that was the craze in ’03 and ’04 and ’05, and they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One of the hardest hit is Renaissance, near the Edison Mall, converted from apartments three years ago at the height of the real estate boom.

Foreclosure actions have been filed against 17 of the 112 units and five of those have already been taken back by the lender.

Bill Davis, 64, a retired banker who lives in Marietta, Ga., bought a condo at Renaissance in February 2006 for $210,900 as a place where he could visit his son and two grandchildren in Fort Myers.

Now the condo is assessed by the Lee County property appraiser at $133,000, eight other units are listed for sale at $100,000 or less, and Davis said he’s not sure what the future will bring.

The 20 percent response to the special assessment was an eye-opener, he said. So far, foreclosure actions have been filed against the owners of an additional 28 units but many others are headed that way.

“There’s no way they can stay in their homes or will stay in their homes, Davis said.

“They’re just waiting to get kicked out, waiting for a year before the sheriff kicks them out” after the foreclosure goes thorough.

Short of dissolution, homeowners associations face a series of hard choices, said Ellen de Haan, regional managing partner for Tampa Bay for the real estate law firm Becker & Poliakoff and a past president of the Community Associations Institute.

“Levying an assessment which punishes the good guys isn’t always the way to go,” de Haan said.

But burning up reserves can be a bad strategy as well because it leaves the association vulnerable to emergencies.

They can try to borrow the money, but delinquent assessments are a red flag for lenders, she said. Even if a loan is obtained “they can get into a spiral of debt where they’re further and further behind.”

She recommends that associations facing financial problems be aggressive about going after delinquent assessments and cut expenses as much as possible.

Not every community built in the past few years faces problems as severe as Renaissance but most are seeing at least some effects.

Steve Bostwick, a Century 21 Sunbelt Realty agent who bought three Tuscany Gardens units three years ago, said increasing delinquency rates has caused his monthly fees to increase from $233.23 a month for a one-bedroom, one-bath unit up to $411.75 for the largest three-bedroom, two-bath unit. Thirty-four of the 248 units are in foreclosure.

Tuscany Gardens is still doing OK, he said, but that’s meant board members getting hands on in the management of the condo.

“I think really it’s because we took the bull by the horns,” Bostwick said.

For example, he said, to save money the board got rid of its maintenance contractor and hired an experienced handyman to live at the condo and do as many repairs as possible.

It’s also dispensed with a billing company and renegotiated its insurance bill: At more than $100,000, that was the biggest savings so far, he said.

Stoneybrook residents haven’t just sat and waited for their property values to go down as weeds grow on the community’s 23 abandoned properties. There have been at least 62 foreclosure actions filed against Stoneybrook residents, 30 of them this year, according to Lee County Clerk of Courts records.

“The Estates Home Owners Association bought the mulch and the volunteers spread the mulch, trimmed the bushes and made the houses look good,” said Sherry Bucar, who’s on the board of the Stoneybrook at Gateway Master Association and also the board of for Stoneybrook at Gateway Estates, a community within Stoneybrook. But that only goes so far, she added, noting that Gateway Estates only assesses its 694 homeowners an $87-a-year fee. “We don’t have the money to buy more bark mulch.”

Warren Davies, president of the master association, said his board is considering what needs to be cut from the budget. The master association levied a $720 fee in January and hasn’t decided what the July assessment will be.

There is some resentment from the solid citizens who are still paying their assessments, Davies said.

“People who do pay their assessments don’t understand why we’re cutting,” he said.

“But you have to work into your budget that money that’s not being paid.”

Right now, he said, “We’re running between 14 and 17 percent not paying their assessments: compared to 3 to 5 percent in normal economic times.

The lost money creates some hard choices for the board.

“If the pool isn’t heated as long as some people like,” Davies said, “they won’t be happy.”

But that may be necessary, he said: The propane used for heat is $2.52 a gallon, up from $1.90 a year ago.

Already, Davies said, the association has cut hours at its clubhouse and basketball courts and more may required.

Increasing fees substantially isn’t likely, he said, because the young families and fixed-income retirees who make up a large part of the community would be hard-pressed to pay more.

However the budget is balanced, there won’t be the luxury of a surplus, Davies said.
“If you have any money left over you’re lucky,” he said. Courtesy Fort Myers News-Press

Homes in Lee County Sell Cheap, but Fast

Existing homes sales in Lee County in April rose sharply from a year earlier as prices plunged and builders offered deep discounts.

Meanwhile, sales and prices dropped nationally as the backlog of unsold single-family home was at a 23-year high, according to statistics released Friday.

In Lee County, 809 single-family homes were sold with the assistance of a Realtor compared to 573 in April 2007, an increase of 41 percent, according to the Florida Association of Realtors.

Meanwhile, the median price fell 29 percent from $283,200 to $200,300 in the same period.

Charlotte County sales showed a similar trend: The price was down 27 percent from $197,100 to $143,400 while the number of sales rose 6 percent from 254 to 268.

Collier County statistics weren't available.

Southwest Florida bucked a statewide trend of falling sales: Florida had 11,200 sales, down 9 percent from 12,358 a year earlier. The statewide median price fell 17 percent from $239,000 to $198,900.

One recent buyer said he's glad to be buying after a long decline in the market. The median price of a single-family home is now 37 percent off the all-time high of $322,300 reached in December 2005.

"We found it cheaper to buy than rent," said Bernie Connor, 71, a retiree from Maine who's under contract to buy a four-bedroom, two-bath house in northwest Cape Coral for about $110,000.

"I found it more reasonable to buy, naturally, because of the equity," he said. "The low home market's probably going to last for another year or so but then it's going back up - there's no question about that."

His real estate agent, Brett Ellis of Remax Realty Group in Fort Myers, said the market is continuing to absorb the foreclosed houses being taken back by banks - Connor's new house, built in 2006, is one of those homes.

"Prices are attractive and buyers are off the fence," Ellis said. "There are definitely enough end users."

Fifty-seven of the houses sold in April were in one community - Coral Lakes in Cape Coral, where Fort Myers-based businessman O.J. Buigas in March purchased 116 completed but never-lived-in houses and townhouses for $13.5 million from Engle Homes. Engle's parent company, Tousa Inc., is seeking to reorganize under federal bankruptcy protection.

Buigas immediately reduced the prices at Coral Lakes by about 40 percent and they've all been sold, said Denny Grimes of Denny Grimes & Co., who marketed the homes for Buigas.

"You will see the numbers go up" for sales, he said. "I think the worst is over," although prices may continue to fall for a while.

In a similar move, businessmen Greg Jarrett and Larry Smith are buying 72 houses from financially strapped Comfort Home Builders in Cape Coral. The plan is to offer them for half the original price, or less, and sell them in a month.

Two weeks after the homes went on the market, about half are under contract, said Steve Koffman of Century 21 Sunbelt Realty. He's selling 62 of the houses and Kim Hardin, also of Century 21 Sunbelt, is selling 10.

Buyers include people intending to live in the houses and investors, Koffman said. "The shrewd investors are buying when other people are selling."

Nationally, the housing market was still in the doldrums.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors showed sales of existing homes fell for the eighth time in the past nine months, with the backlog of unsold single-family homes rising to the highest level in more than two decades.

Sales dropped by 1 percent to 4.89 million units, matching the all-time low set in January. These records go back to 1999.

The median price for an existing home dropped 8 percent, compared with a year ago, to $202,300. Analysts predicted further price declines given the huge backlog of unsold single-family homes, which rose in April to 10.7 months supply at the current sales pace, the highest inventory level since June 1985.

- The Associated Press also contributed to this report

Lee County's subprime holes may deepen

For every 1,000 homes in Lee County, 62 are financed with the shakiest of loans.

Those loans are headed for trouble fast. Thousands are in foreclosure or behind on their mortgages and thousands more will see their interest rates skyrocket.

They are subprime loans, arranged with people with weak credit in exchange for higher interest rates or a low rate that adjusts after a set time, often two years.

Subprime loans are being blamed for the downward spiral of the nation's residential housing market.

In Lee County, 17,300 of 245,405 homes are financed by subprime loans.

Lee has one of the highest concentrations of subprimes in the country, ranking 16th, according to data from the Federal Reserve Board of New York, which compiles the information for the nation. By comparison, San Bernardino County in California is No. 1 with 84 homes per 1,000. Other Florida hot spots include St. Lucie, third with 79 homes per 1,000 and Miami-Dade, 14th, with 63 homes per 1,000. New York City has only 1 subprime loan per 1,000 homes.

Lee numbers

• Some 15,200 subprimes are for owner-occupied homes.

• Some 7,800 of the subprimes will reset with higher interest rates this year and next.

• Some 3,500 loans are at least 30 days behind on their payments.

As many subprimes slip into foreclosure, they're causing problems for a county already rocked with unemployment at a 15-year high; median home prices for an existing home down 34 percent since December 2005, from $322,300 to $212,500 in March; and a home-building sector flat on its back with a mere 86 single-family-home building permits in April, less than a quarter of the 419 a year earlier.

The more subprimes that fail, the longer it could take for Lee's housing industry to recover, experts said.

Some will go into foreclosure although others will avoid it, said Michael Timmerman, a Naples-based senior associate with Fishkind & Associates, an Orlando-based economic consulting firm.

"People know these things are resetting and they're already talking to the lender," Timmerman said. "People know the value of the property has gone down."

The silver lining is that houses become more affordable.

"It makes more sense to buy than to rent," he added.

Carol and Robert Rommel know firsthand the hardships faced by holders of subprime mortgages.

The couple, in their early 60s, bought a condominium in Bell Tower Park in south Fort Myers in September 2005 for $390,000 with a subprime loan and moved from Dallas. As prices dropped, they decided they could afford a house in Reflection Lakes. But the condo didn't sell and now they're struggling to cover two mortgages. They can't even refinance the condo loan because they'd have to pay a $10,000 early-out penalty, common under subprime terms.

For many people with subprimes, there isn't a lot they can do to keep from losing their investment, said Vincent Patti, vice president of Fort Myers-based First Capital Lending.

"What we're getting is a lot of them come through the door that there's not enough equity and there's nothing we can do," he said.

Their best bet is to throw themselves on the mercy of the lender, Patti said.

"I have seen a lot of the lenders stretching the terms for the reset," he said. "If it looks like it can be done, they'll extend the two years or three years. I've seen it happen a number of times, and it's happened to me personally on an investment property."

Banks are still cautious about giving away too much, he said.

"They seem to be looking for enough income that you can make the payment (under more lenient terms) but not so much that they won't give the farm away," Patti said.

For many, going to the bank would be an exercise in futility, said Robbie Roepstorff, president of Edison National Bank in Fort Myers.

Edison and most other local banks didn't do subprime loans during the boom - it was the big banks like Countrywide and Bank of America - and the local banks aren't getting any demand to refinance them now, she said.

Even for those with enough equity in their homes to refinance, it can be a rocky path, said Charles Costello, a real estate and mortgage broker in Fort Myers.

"When banks impose conservative, reasonable underwriting standards on someone who got into a subprime mortgage when fog on a mirror qualified you, and so many were self-employed and now are unemployed, independent contractors, that's the kiss of death," he said.

One bank, he said, recently asked a prospective lender for three years of pay stubs to prove a steady income.

Getting the lender to give you a better deal can be problematic as well, Costello said, because most subprimes were bundled up into mortgage-backed securities by Wall Street and sold to investors.

"It's difficult to modify a loan because nobody has the authority to do that," he said. "Because of the securitization, they're sliced and diced, a piece owned all over the globe."

The Rommels haven't given up on selling their condo.

"We're willing to bring money to the table," Carol said. "We'll take it out of our savings." Courtesy Fort Myers News Press

About $150 million owed in property taxes

Property owners this year failed to pay taxes on time on a record 58,000 parcels in Lee County, totaling more than $150 million in unpaid taxes, an indication of Southwest Florida’s floundering economy.

That means taxes on almost 10 percent of all county parcels are delinquent. Included as delinquent are people going through foreclosure but not those who have filed for bankruptcy.

Collier County experienced a record year as well, with 13,309 parcels advertised totaling about $50 million.

"That is staggering," said Mike Hagen, a former Lee County appraiser turned owner of TaxCuts1 Inc., in Fort Myers. "What it tells me is real estate values have tanked; people are hurting."

Last year, Lee County advertised about 43,000 parcels totaling $101 million in delinquent taxes. In 2006, it was 31,000 parcels and $48 million.

That means delinquent tax dollars are up 211 percent in two years.

Many delinquent properties are vacant in areas such as Lehigh Acres, Cape Coral and Bokeelia.

Tax certificates are used when an owner doesn’t pay on time. A lien is placed on the property and the certificate is sold at auction. Someone buying those certificates pays the taxes, but property owners can buy back the certificates with fees and interest.
The public has a chance to purchase tax certificates at the 8 a.m. May 30 online auction. The News-Press will publish the delinquent tax advertising section Monday and again May 19 and 26.

Property owners redeemed about 14,000 certificates from the 2006 tax sale and 16,000 from last year’s.

Unpaid taxes combined with other telltale figures to reveal the economic slump in the area. The median price of an existing single-family home has fallen 34 percent since December 2005, from $322,300 to $212,500 in March, the last month available. More than 15,000 foreclosure actions are pending in Lee County circuit court.

Jean Belizaire, 53, said his home in Cape Coral is going through foreclosure. He moved from Miami in mid-2006 when his brother-in-law said it was a strong real estate market. Belizaire couldn’t pay this year’s $4,112 tax bill on the home he bought in mid-2006 for $60,000 more than the county’s most recent appraisal. The licensed Realtor who worked independently said he last sold a home in February 2007.

In July, his wife of 30 years had a stroke, he said. Her insurance expired after three months, and she continues to recover in Miami with their daughter. Belizaire said he plans to move in with his daughter this month, but not until his 13-year-old son who lives with him, finishes the school year.

Belizaire had no success finding another job.

"I have plenty of friends right here, they lost their job and can’t find another one, I have three that have lost their homes already," Belizaire said. "It’s tough. Real tough."

Foreclosures hit new high

Foreclosure actions filed in Lee County spiked up sharply to a record high of 2,160 in April - with almost a third for primary residences, according to statistics released Thursday by the Southwest Florida Real Estate Investors Association.
Investors and homeowners alike have been hit hard as the median price of a single-family home has fallen 34 percent from a peak of $322,300 in December 2005 to $212,500 in March.
Joanne Long is one of the homeowners who's facing foreclosure - she and her husband Matt McKibben expect to lose their southwest Cape Coral home because they can't pay off more than $236,000 they owe lender Franklin Credit Management Corp.
There's little chance of selling the house to pay off that debt because it's now worth only about $105,000, she said.
The straw that broke the camel's back was having to refinance with an adjustable rate mortgage to pay the water and sewer assessment to Cape Coral in 2006, said Long, who works at the Lee County clerk of court's office and also part time as a real estate agent. "We were paying about $1,000 a month but once that happened the payment jumped to $2,200."
The lender filed foreclosure proceedings against them last year and now they'll have to leave soon with their two children and rent a house, Long said.
Of April's foreclosures, 692 were homesteaded primary residences: 32 percent of the total and up from 554 in March. The percentage of primary residences has been holding steady at about that level for the past six months as the number of foreclosures has risen.
Mortgage broker and investor Jeff Tumbarello, who's also sales manager for real estate agency Engel & Völkers Fort Myers River District in Fort Myers, said foreclosed houses are coming back onto the markets as the banks take them back and then sell them.
"But they're losing, on average, 50 to 60 percent of what they lent," he said.
The bank sales have had the effect of finally boosting the number of houses being sold in the county because they're going so cheaply, he said. "The foreclosed homes are the pearl our market's got to offer."

Lee County housing market clogged

Lee County's inventory of unsold homes has swollen to record levels, depressing prices and discouraging the construction of new homes - and the glut may be even worse than it appears.
As real estate sales in Lee County dwindled over the past two years, the inventory of unsold homes swelled to almost 16,000 _ seven times what it was in 2005 at the height of the market when buyers outnumbered sellers. Nearly 5 percent of the total housing units in the county are for sale.
Because of the glut, contractors find it impossible to compete in price against existing homes - and any dwelling in less than perfect condition has little chance of being sold.
The News-Press recently took a look at a one-day snapshot of the homes in Lee County for sale on the Multiple Listing Service, the system by which Realtors announce their listings to each other.
Some statistics:
• 5,189 single-family houses were listed for less than $200,000 countywide;
• 1,325 were going for $700,000 or more;
• Cape Coral had the most houses for sale: 5,011. That's followed by the Fort Myers/south Fort Myers area at 3,173 and Lehigh Acres at 2,547
Experts say the blame can be spread among the greedy seller and lagging economy. But high as they are, the MLS numbers may not tell the full story.
There's a "shadow market" of houses not officially for sale even though they're owned or soon will be owned by lenders who took them back in foreclosure, said Jack McCabe, a Deerfield Beach-based real estate consultant who tracks the area's home market.
"It'll probably take federal regulators to tell them to get this stuff off the books," he said. "The lenders are the most unrealistic of the bunch right now" - many banks still aren't putting their repossessed houses back on the market priced to sell.
As a result, said Michael Timmerman, a Naples-based senior associate with Fishkind & Associates, an Orlando-based economic consulting firm, it's hard to gauge the true number of houses on the market.
"The MLS doesn't really give us a full picture of the supply," he said. "It's very difficult because there's no one good source that allows us to get a handle on the total supply."
For example, Timmerman said, a builder generally doesn't put all the houses available in a new community on the MLS.
"But he may have three or four sales from a development on MLS just to entice people,' Timmerman said. "The MLS can be used as a system to generate leads for that particular builder."
But there's no way to know exactly how much of that is going on, or how many houses are being held by a lender who ultimately will have to put them back on the market.
When a homeowner does manage to sell, it's a happy event.
"That's the fun part," Esther Bird said as she closed on the sale of the Fort Myers house she and her husband sold in order to buy a bigger one for $370,000. "It's a good feeling."
It's also somewhat rare these days, said her real estate agent, Patti Pietroniro of Cypress Realty/GMAC in Fort Myers, even though Bird's house sold for $225,000 after only four days on the market.
The median MLS sales price has fallen 34 percent from its peak of $322,300 in December 2005 to $211,900 in February 2008, the last month for which statistics are available, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. Permits for new houses have slowed to a trickle: only 74 in March compared to 1,558 two years earlier.
The pace of sales is picking up, but it's short sales and foreclosure sales that make up the bulk of what's selling now because they're generally priced below other comparable listings, she said. "Buyers are making offers on short sales."
In a short sale, the lender agrees to reduce the mortgage so the seller can afford to make the deal.
Less desperate sellers often are not realistic about what a house will bring when they try to put it up for sale, Pietroniro said. "Unfortunately I have to tell people sometimes, 'I'm sorry I can't do anything for you'" at the price they want to ask.
Steve Koffman of Cape Coral-based Century 21 Sunbelt Realty, said about 40 percent of homes sold in the city are foreclosures or short sales.
The enormous inventory means that only the ones priced the lowest and in the best condition will sell, he said. Otherwise, an agent won't bother to show them to a client.
"There could be 500 like it on the market," Koffman said. "How do I pick the eight I'm going to show today? They have to stand out."
That's bad news for the houses that are half-finished or in bad shape, of which there are large numbers in areas where a lot of inexpensive homes were being built in Lehigh and the Cape during the boom, he said.
Many have been vandalized by thieves or even by subcontractors who weren't paid and illegally came back to take back items such as bathtubs, Koffman said.
He thinks the overall inventory of houses may start to fall now because sales are up. It's only in the under-$200,000 category that the number of houses for sale is likely to keep rising because so many are being taken back in foreclosure by lenders that will eventually put them back on the market.
With prices at rock bottom for existing homes, builders are offering great deals on the houses they've already finished - but don't expect it to last forever, said Kevin Clark, Southwest Florida division president of national developer Beazer Homes.
Builders are throwing in amenities such as granite counter tops and high-end flooring to lure buyers without cutting prices further, he said. That way they won't have to raise prices when demand picks up.
When the new construction that exists today is gone, he said, prices may not go up but "the next round of houses you get coming out from builders will be less amenitized - still a good price, but we can't afford to continue building $200,000-300,000 homes with that."
Fort Myers-based real estate broker Denny Grimes said builders are selling their completed houses successfully but that doesn't directly affect the MLS.
That will change when the builders' inventory is all gone, said Grimes, who also writes a column on real estate for The News-Press. "I think this year will mark the end of existing builder inventory."
At that point, Grimes said, there should be a surge in the number of MLS sales, he said, because "psychologically they (buyers) will realize you can't wait forever for everything." Article Courtesy Fort Myers News Press

Lee County housing market bottoms out, experts say

Article courtesy of the Fort Myers News Press
Foreclosures remained high and building permits remained low in March, but this is about as bad as it gets for Lee County's housing market, experts said Tuesday.
A recovery, however, may be months or even years away.
"We're starting to drag the bottom now and we'll drag for just a little bit longer," said Bob Knight of Paul Homes, the president of the Lee Building Industry Association.
Paul's company is based in Cape Coral, where only 12 single-family home permits were pulled by builders in March - half the 24 pulled in February and less than a tenth of the 122 in March 2007, according to a report released Tuesday by the city.
In unincorporated Lee County, 47 permits were pulled. That's down from 63 in February and only 15 percent of the 318 pulled in March 2007, according to a release Tuesday by the county Department of Community Development.
The county's numbers also include Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Springs, which contract with the county for permitting services.
Meanwhile, in a separate report Tuesday, 1,784 foreclosure actions were filed in Lee Circuit Court in March, according to statistics compiled by the Southwest Florida Real Estate Investors Association.
Knight said the flood of foreclosures has taken its toll on the home-building industry by forcing prices down to the point builders often can't compete.
"You just can't replicate the prices with new construction," he said.
People having a house built now, Knight said, typically "already own their lot and they've owned it for years. They have no interest in buying something existing."
But Knight warned that at some point, that will change and builders won't be able to offer the deep discounts a buyer can get now.
Jamie Pirrello, president of Vision Homes USA in Fort Myers, said it may be a while before large numbers of people start wanting to build homes here again.
"I don't see any hope in the near future" because of the huge numbers of foreclosures, he said. "If it were a short-term deal where there were a few foreclosures, that's one thing, but I think it's a long-term problem in Southwest Florida. A lot of these banks haven't even started to put the homes on the market yet - the numbers are so overwhelming, they don't have the people and systems to do it."
Charles McKinney, 74, recently completed a house in Pine Shadows Air Park in North Fort Myers and is living there while he tries to sell it.
He's not worried about getting a good price even though he know it won't go for the $800,000 he could have made two years ago at the height of the market.
"I think there are people out there" who will be interested because Pine Shadows has a rare amenity: a 3,200-square-foot, blacktop air strip. McKinney's house has a hangar that could accommodate most private planes.
"I'm not a professional builder," said McKinney, who was in the farming, real estate and movie theater business in Ohio before moving here 14 years ago.
Still, McKinney said, the higher end of construction in Lee County isn't dead yet.
"I've noticed there's still a lot of nice homes being built in the higher scale," he said.
Pirrello said that's true - wealthy buyers aren't feeling the same financial pinch as most people.
Charlie Green, clerk of courts in Lee County, said he doesn't think foreclosures will go much higher than the current rate.
He recently hired five people to do nothing but work on foreclosures but is already thinking about what to do when that work slows down and the number of sales starts picking up.
"I think we've hit bottom," Green said. "I think we've turned the corner."
There's no backlog of foreclosures waiting to be filed because the law firms handling them have geared up for the work, Green said.
"These mortgage mills are set up and they can crank them out," Green said.
Jeff Tumbarello, sales manager of real estate agency Engel & Völkers Fort Myers River District in Fort Myers, said he's not so sure the numbers have reached a plateau. The pace of about 80 foreclosures per working day may be as much as the attorneys, process servers and other people in the system can handle, he said.
Still, Tumbarello said, it's likely that in about two years, retiring Baby Boomers born in the late 1940s will rejuvenate the housing market here.
Permit figures for Fort Myers were not available Tuesday.
In the unincorporated county, single-family permits pulled last month were for a total value of $19.5 million. There were also six duplex permits for a total of $1.9 million and two apartment buildings for $2.3 million.
Commercial permits totaled $6.5 million for 18 buildings.
There were 1,556 permits of all types in the county - including additions and work such as swimming pools, fire alarms and fences - totaling $61.8 million.

Deals spur home sales

Sales of single-family homes in Lee County soared in February as buyers were spurred into action by a sharp drop in prices.
The median price of a home sold with the assistance of a Realtor was $211,900, off 9 percent from January's $234,000. Sales were up 32 percent from 338 to 445, according to a report Monday by the Florida Association of Realtors.
Prices have been falling steadily for about two years in Lee County, although last month's sales were exactly the same as a year ago.
Lee sales of single-family homes in February held steady at 445 while the median price plunged 17 percent from $254,200 a year earlier.
Meanwhile, in a separate report Monday, the National Association of Realtors issued a report saying that after falling for six straight months, sales of existing homes posted an unexpected increase in February that may have reflected more aggressive price-cutting by sellers in Florida and California.
The most dramatic evidence of that locally was at the Coral Lakes subdivision in Cape Coral, where Fort Myers-based businessman O.J. Buigas last week purchased 116 completed but never-lived-in residences in the project for $13.5 million from Engle Homes.
Engle's parent company, Tousa Inc., is seeking to reorganize under federal bankruptcy protection.
Buigas immediately reduced the prices at Coral Lakes by about 40 percent.
"We're only at 29 homes available out of 116," said Fort Myers-based real estate broker Denny Grimes of Denny Grimes & Co., who's handling the sales. "There were some investors but I'd say it's at 75 percent end users or people who want to rent out for awhile before living there. People didn't come in and buy a baker's dozen."
The people buying are putting down non-refundable 5 percent deposits and often already have financing when they sign, he said.
One of the buyers was Mary Grace Munoz, 57, of Cape Coral, who with her husband Walter bought two single-family homes for $133,000 each.
"These were super, super values and possibly one day in the future I'll want to move to a smaller house, maybe downsizing when we're in our 70s," said Munoz, who said she was especially impressed with the community's amenities such as a clubhouse, pool, basketball courts and softball field.
Her son and daughter each bought a house, she added.
Real estate agent Brett Ellis of RE/MAX Realty Group in Fort Myers attributed the pickup in sales to the rising number of foreclosures. A total of 1,674 foreclosure actions were filed in circuit court in February, down from a record 1,833 in January but up sharply from 624 in February 2007.
"There are more foreclosures in the lower range because that's where foreclosures are concentrated, and that's what skews the price down," he said.
Buyers are snapping up the foreclosure sales, which generally are priced to move, he said.
The Coral Lakes sales show that lower prices stimulate purchases, Ellis said, but they'll also likely cause some who bought there for the old, higher prices to walk away from their mortgages and go into foreclosure.
One banker said, however, that the trend toward foreclosures may abate as lenders work with clients to keep them in their homes.
Richard Purdy, senior vice president of asset preservation at Coral Gables-based BankUnited Financial Corp., said, "Where there are more people working with banks on their current situations, if that puts fewer homes in foreclosure, that should be having a stabilizing impact on the market itself."
BankUnited is working with people to help them keep their houses, he said. "If it's someone who's lost his job and just needs a little breathing room, we can accept something other than the note payments for a fixed period of time."
Statistics aren't available for Collier County, but in Charlotte County the median price fell 25 percent from $201,100 in February 2007 to $151,300 while the number of sales fell 7 percent from 216 to 201.
Statewide, the median price fell 16 percent to $198,900 from $237,000 while the number of sales fell 25 percent from 11,132 to 8,310 from a year earlier.
The National Association of Realtors said that nationwide sales of existing homes rose by 2.9 percent in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.03 million units. It was the biggest increase in a year and caught economists by surprise. They had been expecting a small decline.
The trade group reported that the median existing sales price in February fell to $195,900. That was the largest year-over-year drop in records that go back to 1999. Fort Myers News Press
- The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

Floridians will decide swap for lower property fees

TALLAHASSEE –– Voters will get to decide in November if they want to cut their property taxes by an average of 25 percent and swap them with a penny sales tax increase, state budget cuts, closing sales tax loopholes or reliance on growth.
The powerful Taxation and Budget Reform Commission voted 21-4 Monday to approve the measure by former Senate President John McKay over the objections of critics ranging from the retail business lobby to the Florida Catholic Conference, speaking on behalf of the poor.
"I would support that," Cape Coral homeowner William Thompson, 74, said.
"First of all, I'd like to see (property) taxes reduced because they've just gotten way out of hand," Thompson said. "We have been forced to tighten our belts, especially those of us who are retired and on fixed incomes. Government has to do the same thing."
The vote represented a personal victory for McKay, who has been pursuing a version of the tax swap since the Legislature first rebuffed it six years ago.
"The only opponents of this proposal are the special interests," McKay said. "The voters of Florida are going to make this decision. It's imperative that we give them the opportunity."
A House committee room crowded with anti-tax activists and lobbyist erupted in cheers immediately after the vote.
McKay was successful by a comfortable margin. He needed 17 votes for passage.
The fate of the measure looked doubtful as recently as a month ago, but McKay was able to work with an influential critic and fellow commissioner, former Jeb Bush aide Pat Levesque, who withdrew her own competing proposal. To satisfy LeVesque, McKay agreed to give lawmakers more options than the penny tax increase and closing sales tax loopholes.
If approved, the property taxes that lawmakers require local districts to levy, "required local effort," would disappear by 2011. Statewide, RLE makes up about a quarter of the average property tax bill, but reaches 40 percent in some areas like Volusia County and about 33 percent in much of South Florida.
Lee County real estate agent John McWilliams would vote for the amendment.
"We have a long way to go toward a full recovery and obviously I'm rooting on any help in taxation reform," he said.
McWilliams said he has seen increased buyer activity since voters in January approved Amendment 1, which made portable the Save Our Homes 3 percent cap on annual assessment increases for homesteaders.
Schools could receive $9.6 billion from RLE that year by at least one estimate, and raising the state's 6-cent sales tax by a penny would generate less than $4 billion.
The rest would have to come from direct budget cuts - a Levesque proposal - or closing sales tax loopholes or new state revenues generated by the economic stimulus that supporters say the proposal will spark.
Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, testified in favor of the measure, with at least one significant reservation.
The proposal is philosophically attractive to school boards he said because their members hate property taxes as much as constituents, Blanton said.
Eliminating that as a significant source of school funding would put more responsibility back on lawmakers, where the Constitution says it belongs.
"It's good for education," Blanton said. "But if they can't fill the void with sales tax exemptions, it's going to be a real disaster."
Mike McCarron, a lobbyist for the Florida Catholic Conference, asked panel members to consider the impact of a sales tax increase on the poor, who will see little or no direct benefit from a property tax reduction.
"There ought to be an assessment and integration as to how it affects all of the people of the state," he said. "How will these policies affect the poor and the powerless?"
Some of the most forceful objections came from Commissioner Randy Miller, a lobbyist for the Florida Retail Federation, who warned that sales tax increases will slow the economy and make Florida less competitive with other states.
"We're not doing anything here except changing who pays the bill," Miller said.
But more commissioners were swayed by two forceful presentations by House Speaker Marco Rubio. The West Miami Republican is not a member of the commission, but addressed the panel members twice before the vote.
Rubio took a backhanded slap at Gov. Charlie Crist, who successfully pushed a legislative compromise plan, Amendment 1, that voters approved in January. It promises $9.3 billion in property tax relief over the next five years and Crist sold it to voters as a way to charge the stagnant economy.
Rubio said the measure will fall flat as an economic stimulus. "There are direct consequences to what we do or fail to do. Let me tell you, you're our last hope." Fort Myers News-Press

Lee pending home sales up dramatically in February

Nicole Rennie figures a college student could not have dreamed of owning a home in Cape Coral when she moved here two years ago. But she and boyfriend Steven Coburn are closing Monday on a three-bedroom, two-bath home in southwest Cape Coral.
"My parents don't even own a house, but look at me," Rennie said. "I'm 21 years old and buying a house. Nobody is helping us. We are doing this on our own. It means a great deal to me."
Cape Coral Realtors say Rennie's story is just one sign the real estate market may be turning around in the city of 164,000.
Pending sales in the region jumped dramatically in the last month, according to the Florida Gulfcoast Multiple Listing System Common Database used by Realtors to track sales in Lee County and small parts of Charlotte, Collier and Hendry counties.
In January, 159 single-family homes in those counties had sales pending, according to Cape Coral Realtor Gloria Tate. In February, the number climbed to 753, Tate and other Realtors said.
A pending sale means the buyer and seller have agreed on a price and terms.
Financing has not yet been secured. About 85 percent of pending sales became sales, according to Gloria Tate, an agent at Realty Trac.
In addition, the database shows 436 sales, 191 in Cape Coral, were closed in the area in February, compared to 330 sales, 144 in Cape Coral, closed in January.
More affordable homes are driving the increased activity, which will be highlighted at the annual FutureScape event in Cape Coral on March 18 at First Baptist Church.
The event, organized by the Cape Chapter of the Women's Council of Realtors, provides a real estate and development forecast for the city, and this year, the forecast looks sunny.
Buyers like Rennie who couldn't get in the game when prices were up are taking advantage of a down market.
"What folks are hearing around the country is that there are great buys right now in Southwest Florida," said Annette Barbaccia, president of AMB Planning Consultants. "There are some pretty long-term developers and investors looking not just at tomorrow, but at the long-term future."
Tate said the number of pending sales remains far lower than it was in 2004 or 2005, when there were 300 or 400 pending sales a day. But there is much more activity than Realtors saw just a month ago.
Realtors say Cape Coral may recover faster than other areas of Southwest Florida. A 24-Hour Market Watch report from earlier this week showed 132 pending sales for properties in the area, 53 of which involved Cape Coral properties.
"The prices in Cape Coral are very tempting, and it is an attractive place to live," said Realtor Vivian Hydzu of Sellstate Professional Realtors.
In Lee County, the median price for a single-family home sold in January with the help of a Realtor was $234,000, down 12 percent from $266,900 a year prior, according to a report issued by the National Association of Realtors.
Century 21 Realtor Scott Turner said he has seen a bounce in housing that has helped Cape Coral more than other areas. He just put three houses under contract, he said, all in Cape Coral.
Passage in January of a state initiative expanding homestead benefits helped the market throughout Florida, he said, but Cape Coral has also reaped rewards because of commercial development on the Veterans Memorial Parkway and Pine Island Road corridors.
A weak U.S. dollar has also drawn foreign investors, she said.
"The Canadian dollar is stronger than ours, so Canadians know they can get more for their money," Tate said.
Hydzu said she has also seen lot of interest from Europe, where the Euro is running strong.
Of course, the low prices also mean many sellers are not getting as much as anticipated.
"We are going through a foreclosure market," Tate said, noting that a bank auction is scheduled for April 9.
But the market is empowering to buyers like Rennie and Coburn, according to Hydzu, who found the couple their new home. "These kids could never afford to get a home, even a year ago," Hydzu said.
Rennie works at Lowe's, Coburn at BJ's. Together, Rennie said they have a household income of about $54,000. Rennie is still working toward a bachelor's degree in special education from Florida Gulf Coast University, providing added financial pressure.
The couple is buying their new home on Southwest 26th Street for $109,900. A recent city report said the median home value in that ZIP code is $323,520, much more than the couple could ever afford anytime in the near-future, Rennie said.
Now, she and Coburn will end up paying a monthly mortgage of about $1,200, the same as they pay in rent right now.
"We will own something," she said, "for the same amount of money each month that we have been throwing down the drain."

Report: Cape-Fort Myers foreclosure rate highest in nation

Cape Coral-Fort Myers posted the highest foreclosure rate of any metro area in the nation, with one of every 86 homes in some stage of foreclosure, said RealtyTrac Inc.The California-based company reported this morning that number of homes facing foreclosure jumped 57 percent in January compared to a year ago, with lenders increasingly forced to take possession of homes they couldn’t unload at auctions, a mortgage research firm said Monday.Nationwide, some 233,001 homes received at least one notice from lenders last month related to overdue payments, compared with 148,425 a year earlier, RealtyTrac reported. Almost half of the total involved first-time default notices.

“You have more people going into default and a higher percentage of the properties going back to the banks,” said Rick Sharga, RealtyTrac’s vice president of marketing.The U.S. foreclosure rate last month was one filing for every 534 homes.Stockton, Calif., was ranked second, with one of every 97 homes involved in a foreclosure filing, while the Riverside-San Bernardino metro area in Southern California had the third-highest foreclosure rate with filings for one of every 101 properties.January’s tally represented an 8 percent hike from December.RealtyTrac follows default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions.

Lenders typically consider borrowers delinquent after they fall three months behind on mortgage payments.Attempts to help struggling home owners have fallen short.“The loan workout modification programs aren’t having a significant material effect on keeping properties from going back to the banks,” Sharga said.Other cities to make the top 10 list of foreclosure hot spots were Las Vegas at No. 6 and Greeley, Colo., at No. 8.The news comes the heels of a reports that show a slight rise in existing home sale prices. Home prices rose but the number of sales fell in Lee County in January from the previous month, according to a report released Monday by the Florida Association of Realtors.

Meanwhile, in a separate report Monday by the National Association of Realtors, sales of existing homes fell to the lowest level in nine years while prices continued to decline for the fifth straight month.In Lee County, the median price for a single-family home sold with the help of a Realtor was $234,000, down 12 percent from $266,900 a year earlier but up 8.7 percent from $215,200 in December.Sales were down to 338 in January, 31 percent off 492 a year ago and down 21.8 percent from December’s 432.One south Fort Myers couple, Jim and Carol Osborn, is optimistic that the waterfront house in the Shell Point area in Iona where they’ve lived for 12 years will still fetch a good price in this market.“As far as what we have to offer, it features deep water access to the Gulf or Pine Island Sound — either way you’re out there in 15 minutes,” said Jim Osborn, 68, a retired engineering and computer science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.The Osborns were avid sailboaters when they moved to Shell Point from Wilmington, Del., he said, but now are considering a move to a tennis community.Jim Osborn said he’s aware prices have fallen about 20 percent from their peak in December 2005, when the median price reached $322,300. “But I think the houses in this area, for different reasons, have stabilized,” he said.

The Osborns’ house is listed for $749,000, which their agent, Mark Hetrick of List in MLS Realty, said is priced to sell — less than the $800,000 to $850,000 being asked by the eight or 10 other houses for sale in that area. “To move it you’ve got to be the biggest deal around.”Real estate broker Steve Koffman of Century 21 Sunbelt Realty in Cape Coral agreed that waterfront prices are stabilizing. “You’ve had two years of declining prices that put waterfront back in the game for most people who couldn’t afford to pay for it two years ago.”Meanwhile, he said, there’s room for optimism in the market generally because of a surge in pending sales in January. “The impression I get is the investors are looking at our market again,” Koffman said.

Statistics weren’t available for Collier County because the Naples Area Board of Realtors does not provide its numbers for publication in the association’s report.In Charlotte County, the median price was $156,800, down 21 percent from $199,400 a year earlier and down 3.9 percent from December’s $163,200. The number of sales was 175, 13 percent more than 155 a year ago but down 13.4 percent from 202 in December.Nationally, The National Association of Realtors said Monday that sales of single-family homes and condominiums dropped by 0.4 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.89 million units, the slowest sales pace on record going back to 1999.The median price of a home sold in January slid to $201,100, a drop of 4.6 percent from a year ago.The drop in sales and prices underscored the continued pressure facing housing, which is struggling to emerge from its worst slump in a quarter-century.Sales were weak in all parts of the country except the Midwest, where sales posted an increase of 3.4 percent. Sales dropped by 3.6 percent in the Northeast, 2.1 percent in the West and 0.5 percent in the South.Sales of existing homes and new homes tumbled for a second straight year in 2007 as the housing industry was battered by a severe credit crunch that hit in August while major financial institutions began reporting multibillion-dollar losses on their investments in risky subprime mortgages, loans made to homeowners with weak credit.

The market for subprime mortgages has essentially dried up and other types of loans have become more difficult to obtain as lenders have tightened their standards.Analysts said the abundance of unsold homes would continue to depress sales and prices for some time to come.“Expect sales and prices to keep falling,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics. “There is no end in sight for the housing disaster.”The slump in housing that began in 2006 followed a boom period in which sales and prices had soared to record levels. Many economists believe that the sharp turnaround has severely depressed economic growth and boosted the odds that the country could fall into a full-blown recession.
Courtesy of Fort Myers News Press

Amendment 1 boosts housing market in Lee County

Gordon Redshaw is under contract to buy a retirement house in Fort Myers — and he said the new Amendment 1 protections for homeowners approved by Florida voters last month is welcome news. Redshaw, 59, a retired Eastman Kodak engineer living in Rochester, N.Y., said he probably would have made the decision even without Amendment 1. “My wife and I were pretty much predisposed to move to Fort Myers, and really barring anything catastrophic with regard to the homestead, we pretty much had our minds set to move.” But the amendment provided a comfort level for the purchase, and he believes it’s good public policy, Redshaw said. “I was confident the Legislature would come up with something sensible and fair to everybody.” Real estate agents say Amendment 1, along with prices at four-year lows, has helped create a new willingness by buyers to close the deal. The amendment’s passage doubles the homestead exemption for property taxes to $50,000 for full-time residents and lets homeowners move their Save Our Homes exemption from one Florida house to another. Under Save Our Homes, the assessed value of a home doesn’t go up more than 3 percent in any year. That’s helped allay buyers’ anxieties about volatile property assessments and being punished for moving, said agent Brett Ellis of RE/MAX Realty Group. He said statistics bear out his opinion: the number of Realtor-assisted sales pending for single-family homes in Lee County was 1,088 on Feb. 14, up 33 percent from 821 a month earlier. That’s a rare note of good cheer in a market that’s been dismal since sales and prices reached their zenith in late 2005. Since December 2005, the median price of a single-family home has fallen 33 percent from $322,300 to $215,200 in December 2007, the latest month available, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. In the same time period, the number of sales fell 60 percent from 1,084 to 432. But every cloud has a silver lining. The steep drop in price is finally paying off in less wary buyers, Ellis said. “For whatever reason, Florida appears to be on sale to many people. Prices are down, foreign investors are in, and first-time buyers are back in the market for the first time in a long while.” Also, he said, banks are putting houses on the market priced to sell, often after months of foreclosure proceedings during which it was impossible to buy. “You’re better off letting the banks take over,” he said. “Now you got a property you can sell.” Agent Matt Finn of The Finn Realty Team, which concentrates on homes in Lexington Country Club in south Fort Myers, said he’s also noticed an uptick even though many of his customers are buying second homes that don’t qualify for a homestead exemption. Last year, he said, buyers just weren’t there. “You could put any price on it. Didn’t matter.” Now, Finn said, “They want their properties.” Amendment 1’s benefits are probably just beginning, said Kevin Clark, Tampa division president for Beazer Homes. “I think we’ll see a lot more of that.” Not every prospective home buyer is a fan of Amendment 1, however. Fred Bonke of Chicago, for example, is thinking about building a retirement home on the lot he and his wife, Karen, bought in Cape Coral in 2004 — and Amendment 1 is a factor against coming to Florida. The measure only increases the unfairness of giving a better deal to full-time residents who have been in Florida awhile, said Bonke, 64, a homicide investigator for the state attorney’s office in Chicago. “The person who lives next to you may have a better house but pay less taxes,” he said. “It really is splitting up the community.” Amendment 1 boosts housing market in Lee County That point of view may yet prevail, said Mark Vitner, senior economist for Wachovia Bank, who spoke Thursday at an Urban Land Institute symposium in Naples. “My suspicion is there might be a successful court challenge, which would not be entirely bad because it would really level the playing field.” Meanwhile, however, the amendment’s passage is a source of optimism in the real estate industry. Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson, who spearheaded the drive to get Save Our Homes on the ballot in 1992, said it’s his impression portability and the doubled exemption are juicing up the market. Real estate agents, he said, are busy again. “One hundred percent, they’re telling me the phones are ringing.” Whatever the reason, Finn said, it’s good to actually be selling houses after a long dry spell. “I feel like I’m a Realtor again.”