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
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