SEBRING - The real estate marketing is recovering from the recession. Home sales are up, prices are rising, and new houses are being built.
But Highlands County's housing market is still distressed. A year ago, 35 percent of the houses sold were from foreclosures and short sales, according to figures compiled by Steve Fruit.
Today, the figure is still 30 percent, said Fruit, a broker associate with RE/MAX Realty Plus II in Lakeland.
Foreclosures are about the same, Fruit said, but short sales are down from 12 percent to 8 percent, when comparing 2012 to 2013.
Even so, he remarked, distressed sales are 30 percent of the total.
"I don't really see as many short sales," Debra Worley, a Lake Placid broker, agreed.
Even so, she said, the real estate market still isn't normal yet. That happens when home values rise only 2 or 3 percent per year, "but we're getting closer to where we were before."
Foreclosures and short sales are not an accurate way to judge building and land prices. Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre said, "We still do not and will not use distressed sales to determine market value."
A short sale occurs when a bank agrees to accept less than the total amount owed on a mortgage to avoid having to foreclose - or take back - the property. Either can artificially deflate the property value.
"Our sales volume continues to be low in comparison to pre-boom years," McIntyre said. "Non-distressed sales are still sparse in many areas, making it difficult to find and use arms length comparables to establish good market information.
In January, Florida's housing market reported more closed sales, more new listings, higher median prices, fewer days on the market and continued stabilization of inventory, according to the latest housing data released by Florida Realtors. Closed sales of single-family homes statewide totaled 15,000 last month, up 10.2 percent over the January 2013 figure.
"Price increases are continuing to improve home equity in areas across the state, combined with still-low interest rates," said 2014 Florida Realtors President Sherri Meadows, a team leader at Keller Williams in Gainesville, Ocala and the Villages.
According to Freddie Mac, the interest rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 4.43 percent in January 2014, up from the 3.41 percent average last year.
"January marked 26 consecutive months that we've seen increases in statewide median sales prices for both single family homes and town home-condo properties, year-over-year," Meadows said.
Florida's median sales price for single-family existing homes last month was $162,500, up 12.1 percent from the previous year. The National Association of Realtors said the national median sales price for existing single-family homes in December 2013 was $197,900, up 9.8 percent.
The corresponding price in California was $438,040, $320,000 in Massachusetts, $255,183 in Maryland, and $236,875 in New York.
"The figures released this month are characteristic of a market that has reached balance," said Florida Realtors Chief Economist Dr. John Tuccillo. "While sales and prices continue to rise, the most striking characteristic of the market is the stability of inventory as measured in months. It appears that the rate at which properties are coming on the market is closely matched by sales. In addition, rising prices have cut down on the availability of short sales and these have been dropping consistently."
"St. Pete and Miami, those areas are coming back," said Worley. "We're always trailing the coasts by a year."
Therefore, she concluded, Highlands County's market is likely still a year from normalizing.
The unknown factor, she said, is what the federal government will do with the National Flood Insurance Program. Created in 1968, Congress made the purchase of flood insurance mandatory for people who lived in Special Flood Hazard Areas. However, premiums were cut regularly, and by 1982, two-thirds of participants received a subsidy.
In July 2012, legislators approved the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which would increase rates for pre-flood insurance properties by 25 percent until premiums reach full costs. Subsidies for other lands would be phased out. The feds expect to save about $25 billion.
From the property owner's point of view, though, premiums could reach $30,000 a year, the New York Times reported.
That will cause some of Florida's high-end property owners to sell, Worley suggested.
"If you were going to move somewhere, you would come to the middle of the state," she said. "It will impact us too, but not nearly as much as the coasts."