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."