Jimmy Walker, employee of Easy Joe's Landscaping, works on the lawns of some of the homes that are either for sale, under contract or sale pending on 37th Street East in the Riomar Sarasota Subdivison in south Manatee County.
Last Modified: Monday, November 19, 2012 at 12:08 a.m.
Recent economic data provides new signs that the housing market is recovering in Southwest Florida and throughout the state, but there are still some rough spots.
Analysts say the Florida economy is clearly improving, though slowly, and the housing market has not only stabilized, but is fast recovering in many areas.
Some data remains troubling, though, such as the latest spike in foreclosure filings in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties. Still, economists say the much-battered housing industry is recovering — though not yet recovered.
BMO Capital Markets Economics last week said lower inventories and upward price momentum in Florida suggests "the worst days of the housing crash are behind us."
The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) Index shows Florida housing prices plunged 40 percent from peak-to-trough, but fell just 1.8 percent year-to-year in the second quarter of 2012 — the slowest pace of decline since early 2007.
Prices in some Florida cities have increased about 9 percent from last year's lows.
"We are seeing a significant uptick in the number of people inquiring about either refinancing their current mortgage or looking to finance a new home purchase," said Dave Maraman, BMO Harris Bank's Sarasota-based Florida president.
"We continue to increase the number of mortgage specialists in recognition of the improved market."
Analyst CoreLogic reported home prices in Sarasota and Manatee counties, including distressed sales, increased 4.1 percent in September over the same month last year.
But excluding distressed sales, year-over-year prices climbed 4.7 percent in September and gained 0.4 percent for the month.
Mark Vitner, a senior economist with Wells Fargo Securities who tracks Florida, says the housing market stands out amid other economic gloom.
Even as overall economic growth "putters along" at a 2 percent pace, Vitner notes, homes sales and residential construction are expected to increase.
"There has been considerable progress made at clearing out foreclosures, particularly in hard-hit states like Florida and Arizona," Vitner said. "With many of the best properties already sold, distressed transactions are now accounting for a smaller share of overall sales. The drop in competition from foreclosures has bolstered builder confidence."
However, foreclosures remain a nagging problem here and statewide.
Sarasota County posted the nation's eighth-highest spike in foreclosure filings in October, increasing 53 percent over September, according to analyst RealtyTrac. But filings were down 3 percent over last year.
Florida, meanwhile, registered the nation's highest state foreclosure rate for the second month in a row. One in every 312 Florida housing units had a foreclosure filing in October, more than twice the national average, RealtyTrac said.
A total of 28,783 Florida properties were the subject of a foreclosure filing in October, up 2 percent from the previous month and a 12-month high, but the October 2012 total was still 13 percent below October 2011.
BMO Capital Markets noted that 40 percent of mortgages in Florida remain underwater, as homeowners owe more than their homes are worth.
"Overall, Florida's housing market is one of the most stressed, second of 50, in the country, behind Nevada, but a drawdown in inventories and upward price momentum are positive indications that the worst is over," the BMO economists said.
At the same time though, and somewhat paradoxically, some of the region's homebuilders are well into recovery mode.
Taylor Morrison last week announced it will add 800 homes and an 18-hole golf course on 400 acres to its Esplanade development in Manatee County. Neal Communities, another Lakewood Ranch builder, is under way with its 1,999-home Grand Palm community, in Venice.
The September Trendgraphix report counted a 5.5-month inventory of homes for sale in Sarasota County and just 3.6 months' worth in Manatee County. Both counties were well over a seven-month supply one year ago. Markets are considered in "equilibrium" when the supply stands at six months.