Home prices, sales rise in Lee County

Prices and sales were sharply higher in November for home sales in Lee County.

The median price of a single-family home sold with the assistance of a Realtor jumped 3.8 percent from $91,600 in October to $95,100 in November while the number of sales increased 8.3 percent from 1,413 to 1,530, according to statistics released Tuesday by the Florida Association of Realtors.

Compared with a year ago, the number of houses was more than double the 656 sold in November 2008. The median price, however, was down 13 percent from November 2008’s $109,900.

In a separate report also issued Tuesday, the National Association of Realtors said U.S. home resales surged last month to the highest level in nearly three years, reflecting an extraordinary level of federal support that has pulled the housing market back from the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

Locally, the news was welcome in a housing market that maxed out in December 2005 with a median price of $322,300 and then suffered a long slide until this fall.

“Knock on some wood here, there’s life in this market,” said Steve Koffman, a real estate broker with Century 21 Sunbelt in Cape Coral. “You notice the increase in price when you show houses (to clients) for $110,000 last month and you go out again this month and they’re dirtier and not in as good a location.”

Much of the downward pressure on prices has been from the foreclosed homes pouring back onto the market as lenders take them back and resell them, but that won’t last forever, Tumbarello said — with 64 percent of the sales this year so far sold without a mortgage, “It’s going to be kind of hard for this to continue when that many are cash.”

Still, selling a home in the county isn’t easy these days.

“We’ve had very little action at all, actually,” said Jeff Deatty, who with his brother Steve is trying to sell their father’s two-bedroom Sunset Towers waterfront condo with a boat slip in Cape Coral for $154,900.

They’re marketing it on the craigslist Web site because their father has a reverse mortgage on the property and “the selling prices of condos in that project are very, very close to what he owes. There’s no room for a real estate agent’s commission.”

Nationally, a credit for first-time buyers was driving a stronger market.

Buyers were racing to complete their sales before the original expiration date of the tax credit that was scheduled to expire Nov. 30. Last month, Congress decided to extend and expand the credit to ensure the housing market could sustain its recovery.

About 2 million homebuyers have taken advantage of the credit so far, with first-time buyers making up about half of all transactions last month, driving sales up 44 percent above last year’s levels, a record jump, according to the National Association of Realtors.

November’s sales rose 7.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.54 million, from a downward revised pace of 6.09 million in October, the group said. It was the highest level since February 2007. Sales had been expected to rise to an annual pace of 6.25 million, according to economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters.

Sales are now up 46 percent from the bottom in January, but down 10 percent from the peak more than four years ago. The inventory of unsold homes on the market fell about 1 percent to 3.5 million. That’s a healthy 6.5 month supply at the current sales pace, the lowest level in three years.

The median sales price was $172,600, down 4.3 percent from a year earlier, and up 0.2 percent from October.

— The Associated Press/ Fort Myers News Press contributed to this report

Foreclosures trending down

The foreclosure rate in Lee County in November slowed to levels last seen more than two years ago as the real estate boom's glut of heavily financed, inexpensive homes finally burns itself out.

But commercial properties and more expensive homes could fuel a new wave of foreclosures - perhaps not as many but at much higher values per property.

The number of foreclosures filed in Lee County fell in November to 1,404 from 1,628 in October, according to statistics released Tuesday by the Southwest Florida Real Estate Investment Association.

It was the lowest number since 1,220 were filed in September 2007. A year ago, 1,681 foreclosures were filed for November, the report states.

Jeff Tumbarello, director of the association, noted that 64 percent of homes bought now in the county are strictly cash deals, so eventually "the foreclosure trend has to end."

For the most part, national lenders are the ones foreclosing now, he said. "The local community banks are all out and the regionals have largely disappeared."

That doesn't mean the coast is clear, however.

More commercial properties are showing up in foreclosure now and more expensive homes are still falling in value even as the less expensive ones stabilize in price, Tumbarello said. "Homes above $400,000 are taking a horrific beating."

That has caused concern that, with unemployment at high levels, more people will walk away from the more expensive homes as they fall in price, or simply run out of money to keep paying their mortgage.

"We have to wait and see if this is really a petering out of the foreclosures or just the eye of the storm," said Brad Hunter, who directs Metrostudy's market research operations in Southwest Florida.

Builders are not out of the ballgame completely now, although they're having trouble competing with cheap foreclosed houses being put back on the market by lenders, he said.

But a completely new house comes with a warranty and without the risks of issues such as Chinese drywall, Hunter said.

Tim Rose, president of Arthur Rutenberg Homes in Lee County, said he expects the recovery for builders to be slow but inevitable as the inventory of existing homes is bought up.

Already, he said, "You find very few new homes in inventory that are terrific deals" and some people are learning the hard way that a foreclosed house can come with expensive problems. Charlie Green, clerk of court in Lee County, said the dropping rate of foreclosures is welcome, but that it likely won't be over soon. "I think we're going to see 1,200 to 1,600 a month for a while." The court system still has a backlog of 21,000, down from the peak of about 23,000 about a year ago. So-called "rocket dockets" of mass foreclosure hearings by judges have helped grind away at that number, he said.

Green said he's optimistic for the long run.

"We'll see an in-migration of people who will use up this inventory," he predicts. "I think it's people who can afford to move here. In 2005 they couldn't. Now they can."