South Florida is seeing a big jump in the number of homeowners who are selling their properties for less than they paid, highlighting the magnitude of the region’s historic housing slump.
During the first half of this year, 23 percent of sellers in Broward County unloaded their homes at a loss, according to sales data analyzed by the Sun Sentinel. In Palm Beach County, the percentage was even higher 27 percent. That’s a significant spike from 2006, when only 2 percent of sellers in each county took losses.
“It’s fair to say that some people are desperate,” said Brad Hunter, a housing analyst in West Palm Beach. “But there are others who regret having bought the house at the price they paid and if they can get rid of the obligation of having to continue paying on it, they’re happy to do it.”
The winners in these fire sales are buyers who are getting houses that are much more affordable.
“There’s no way we could have afforded a house before,” said Katarina Lytle, 29, a first-time buyer who paid $205,000 for a house that had been listed a year ago at $355,000 in The Acreage. “My husband and I walked out of the closing, jumped in the truck and just screamed.”
Most people dumping properties this year bought during the peak of the housing boom in 2004 and 2005. Many strapped homeowners are negotiating so-called short sales, in which lenders take less than what is owed on the mortgages and forgive part or all of the remaining debt.
In Broward County, one in three home sales in Miramar in the first six months of 2008 went for losses, according to Sun Sentinel research, which did not include foreclosure sales. Coconut Creek, Parkland and Weston also were among the hardest-hit Broward cities.
In Palm Beach County during the same period, West Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens both had 34 percent of sellers taking less than they paid. Also hurting were the west-central communities of Royal Palm Beach and Wellington, where property values had soared during the housing boom.
South Florida is among the leaders nationwide in homes and condominiums fetching less than the sellers paid, according to Moody’s Economy.com, an influential U.S. real estate research firm. The current climate is a stunning reversal from the housing heyday of 2000 to 2005, when thousands of short-term investors were buying and selling homes in South Florida and pocketing huge profits, seemingly overnight.
That speculation drove up prices, causing buyers to squeeze into homes by using adjustable-rate mortgages and other risky loans that now are resetting with much higher interest rates. Many of the homeowners no longer can afford the properties and are losing them in foreclosure, dropping values across the board.
That’s evident in South Florida’s shrinking tax bases. Broward’s tax base for homes and condos decreased 9 percent from last year, to $167 billion. Palm Beach County homes and condos are valued for tax purposes at $113.9 billion, off 7 percent from $122.9 billion in 2007.
“We had an awful lot of stretch buying above people’s means,” said Lewis Goodkin, a Miami-based housing consultant. “And we’re really paying the price for it now.”
James Diehl bought a three-bedroom house in Wellington for $389,000 in 2005 but quickly discovered South Florida was too expensive. The information technology analyst eventually found a higher-paying job in Atlanta, so he and his wife rented their house here for about a year, but the tenant had no interest in buying it.
Knowing they couldn’t sell the house for close to their mortgage amount and determined to avoid foreclosure, the couple worked out a short sale with Wellington real estate agents Katerina and Nestor Gasset, who found a buyer for $284,000 27 percent less than the Diehls had paid.
“The economic burden has been lifted,” said Diehl, 36. “Everything happens for a reason. Now we’ve moved to a place where we can settle down, survive and thrive.”
Homeowners interested in short sales must pass a hardship test, submitting W-2 forms, income-tax returns and other documents to prove to lenders that they can’t afford to stay in the properties.
Banks typically notify credit bureaus that borrowers completed a short sale or that the loan was paid in full with assistance, but that’s far better than losing the house in foreclosure.
A short sale negatively affects a person’s credit for 12 to 18 months and reduces a credit score by 75 to 125 points, according to The Coloney Group of RE/MAX in Fort Lauderdale. A foreclosure, however, stays on a homeowner’s credit report for three to five years and drops a credit score by 200 to 280 points.
Mary Cochrane bought a $290,000 townhouse in Davie for her daughter in 2005. But she didn’t read the fine print on her adjustable-rate mortgage and saw her monthly payments rise a year later from about $1,600 to $2,400. She said the lender wouldn’t modify the loan.
She eventually contacted her neighbor, a real estate agent who suggested she try a short sale. He found a buyer for $175,000 40 percent less than Cochrane had paid.
Wells Fargo, Washington Mutual, Bank of America and Countrywide Financial Corp. are the largest lenders agreeing to short sales, said real estate agent Katerina Gasset. However, agents say the lenders sometimes drag out the process by not responding to offers quickly enough.
But agents say lenders, particularly the smaller ones, are responding more quickly as the housing crisis deepens.
“My feeling is that it’s easier now than it was six months ago, and six months from now it will be easier than it is now,” said Scott Coloney, principal of The Coloney Group.
Riverside Bank, a community bank with six offices in Palm Beach County, meets with borrowers directly and will consider short sales if their circumstances warrant, said Andy Wells, a Riverside vice president and special assets manager.
But the bank would rather keep the borrowers in their homes, even if that means restructuring the loans, Wells said.
“It’s much more beneficial to us because the bank doesn’t have to take the hit,” he said.
Gerry Thompson bought at the height of the housing boom and soon regretted it.
He paid $585,000 for a Fort Lauderdale home in 2005 for his daughter, an investor. But values started dropping the next year, and the house needed major repairs. Fed up, Thompson sold it five months ago for $380,000 a 35 percent price cut.
Because he didn’t qualify for a short sale, he had to bring $83,000 at closing to make the deal work.
“I was quite happy with the sale price, although it was considerably less than what we had in it,” said Thompson, 75, who splits his time between northern Florida and North Carolina. “We’re done with the real estate business, believe me.”
Hunter, the West Palm Beach housing analyst, said the mistakes that people have made in this real estate cycle will be remembered for decades.
“What’s happening is historic,” he said. “Much will be written about it in textbooks, articles and essays long after we’re through this.”
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The Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District could avoid layoffs of its firefighters because taxable property values did not fall as much as originally estimated.
The district experienced a drop of 16.3 percent, according to assessments released Monday, which are on their way to the state. A month ago, original estimates from the Lee County property appraiser suggested a 23 percent drop, but also a possible drop of just 17 percent.
“We were planning on 17.33 percent. That’s what we built our budget on. It’s still going to impact us drastically,” said Don Adams, fire chief.
Nearly every major taxing authority throughout Lee County is facing budget cuts that can affect emergency medical, fire and police services. At least one official said the decline is probably the worst decline in property values since the Great Depression.
Overall, the county saw little change from the estimate released a month ago, a 12.4 percent drop that ended up at 12 percent. Cape Coral did not see much change either, with a 26.6 percent fall that improved to 25 percent, and the city remained the hardest hit major taxing authority. The Bayshore Fire and Rescue District had a slightly better improvement than Lehigh – a 12.3 percent drop to a 4.8 percent fall, for a 7.5 percent upswing – but Bayshore’s tax base is only one-twelfth of Lehigh’s.
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Although its history is short, Lehigh Acres began as a “tax write-off” for a Chicago millionaire.
While Thomas A. Edison and his wife were spending winters in Fort Myers, there was a scattering of farm sites in the western areas of Lee County, known today as Lehigh Acres. Many families, most of them gone now, homesteaded some of the lands where todays Homestead Rd., one of the communitys two main thoroughfares through town, is located. Thegovernment gave land to homesteaders if they promised to live and work the land.
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An additional 35 streets will be resurfaced by Lee County thanks to lower construction costs earlier this year.
Work started last week on some of the additional streets. Most of the bumpy, worn and potholed streets on the list are in the southwest section of the community, between Gunnery and Homestead Road.
Downer and Knox avenues south are on the list. Residents presented a petition to the county two years ago and were told the money wasn’t available. Then last Wednesday heavy equipment showed up and scraped both between Addison and Raintree streets east.
“All of a sudden it just happened,” said Raymond Castano of Downer Avenue.
“For the most part it was bumpy. We’ve been asking for it for a while,” he added.
“It was horrible,” said Phyllis Whittemore, who lives on Knox Avenue, who lives on Knox Avenue.
“I’m very happy to hear about it. The potholes when it rains get larger,” Whittemore said.
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New Republican challenger Matt Caldwell is running for the Florida Senate District 27 seat now held by Democrat Dave Aronberg, because he believes Lee County should have its own senator.
Aronberg says its more about an unwritten Tallahassee rule and an east coast Senate race.
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Sales edged up and prices reversed a downward spiral that’s been going on since October for existing homes in Lee County, according to statistics released Thursday.
The median price of a single-family home sold with the assistance of a Realtor in May was $212,400, up 6 percent from April’s $200,300, according to the report issued by the Florida Association of Realtors.
Meanwhile, the number of houses sold rose 2 percent from 809 to 823.
Nationally, resales increased 2 percent to a 4.99 million annual rate, but the median price dropped to $208,600 from $222,700 in May 2007.
Sales have been rising in recent months because lower prices are drawing more buyers, said real estate agent Brett Ellis of Remax Realty Group in Fort Myers.
As to the bump in prices in May, he said: “The increase in sales started at introductory-level homes and now we’re getting a lot more offers in the $300,000 to $400,000 range.”
That has had the effect of pushing up the median price, he said.
Will that trend continue?
“My gut tells me it will, but I don’t know that for sure,” Ellis said.
So far, at least, the bottom end of the market’s been driving the boom in sales, said Charles Richardson, regional senior vice president of Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate, Southwest Florida.
“There’s been a substantial number of price reductions over the last couple years, and now you see great affordability in the market,” he said. “The price reductions that took place led us into a healthier market.”
Even with the increasing number of sales, he said, “It’s still a very strong buyer’s market from a point of view of being able to negotiate aggressively with sellers.”
Thursday’s sunny numbers come on the heels of a long decline in prices. The median price reached its all-time high of $322,300 in December 2005.
Compared to May 2007, the price was down 25 percent from $281,500, but the number of sales was up 43 percent from 575.
Condominium prices also were up in May with a median $205,900 – 5 percent more than April’s $195,500. The number of condos purchased fell, however, from 351 to 257.
Wendy King and Steve Kimball of Cape Coral are trying to sell the two-bedroom, two-bath canalfront condo they own on Tudor Drive for $299,000. They paid $340,000 in November 2005.
With direct access to the Gulf of Mexico, King said, “it’s a fantastic location and that’s a little less than what we paid for it three years ago when the market was great. We get very little traffic and maybe we’re asking too much, but we’re not in the position to lose $30,000, $40,000.”
Statewide, the number of houses sold dropped 5 percent to 12,175 from 12,882 a year earlier while the median price dropped 15 percent from $239,000 to $203,300 in the same period.
Nationally, resales increased 2 percent to a 4.99 million annual rate, higher than forecast, from a 4.89 million pace in April, the National Association of Realtors said today in Washington. The median price dropped 6.3 percent from May last year.
Compared with a year earlier, sales were down 16 percent in May.
The median price dropped to $208,600 last month from $222,700 in May 2007.
That was the fifth largest year-over-year price decline for records that go back to 1999. Many analysts think housing prices need to stop falling or start rising for the ailing housing market to regain its health.
Fallout from the housing crisis continued to be a big drag on first-quarter growth. Builders slashed spending on housing projects by 24.6 percent on an annualized basis. That wasn’t as bad, though, as the 25.2 percent cut made in the fourth quarter, the most in 26 years.
Posted in General, Lehigh Acres News | Tagged condo sales, existing home sales, florida housing market, home market, housing market, land for sale, lee county, lee county news, lehigh acres home sales, Lot for Sale | 2 Comments »
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Across from the private road in Alva is Daniels Preserve, the first property acquired through a land preservation program that allows sellers to name their properties after themselves.
The property, formerly owned by lifetime Alva resident Ruby Daniels, now is publicly owned, and supposed to stay that way forever.
The naming privilege offered by the Legacy Program is fairly new, only 18 months old, and Lee officials are promoting it to help entice property owners to sell environmentally sensitive land to the county, especially in the midst of a slumping real estate market.
Lynda Thompson, coordinator for Conservation 20/20, Legacy’s parent program, said despite the likelihood of less revenue coming into the county next year after a preliminary 12 percent drop in property values, more land can be acquired for preservation because of it’s more affordable now.
“When the market was favorable for land development, people didn’t have the interest (to sell to the county) because there were speculators willing to pay above market value. We couldn’t compete,” she said. “Now we can be more selective, more competitive.”
Property owners have to make the first move and fill out a willing seller form for the county to consider a purchase. A brochure about the Legacy Program is included. So far, two property owners have sold, including Daniels. Another two have made offers.
The county pays for Legacy properties through its Conservation 20/20 program, which costs taxpayers 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable property value. The county has spent $187.7 million to acquire 85 properties totaling nearly 19,000 acres since voters approved the program in 1996.
“At this point they seem to have an awful lot of land,” said south Fort Myers resident Jack Tanner, who believes voters should have to approve the program again.
Preservation seems to be popular.
“It’s one of the few programs that wherever I go in the county people seem to support it,” Commissioner Frank Mann said.
To qualify for Legacy, a property must be at least 100 acres or have an environmental significance such as connection to other sensitive lands. Other properties can be sold to 20/20 without naming rights.
Daniels qualified for the Legacy option, the first person to do so.
“Being realistic and looking into the future, I knew there was a good chance the property would be sold, and it would be sold to developers,” she said.
Daniels, 69, watched her daughters play on the 243-acre property when they were children. The land has oak hammocks and cypress trees, a pond and headwaters of Spanish Creek, and when money is available to make it a park, it will have hiking and bird watching.
“I decided to do something when I was alive to make sure it would remain in its natural state so the public can enjoy the beauty we’ve always enjoyed,” said Daniels, who sold her property to the county for $3.9 million.
Sam Galloway sold the second property to Legacy shortly before he died. The county bought the 404-acre plot known as Sam Galloway Preserve, located off Corkscrew Road in southeast Lee, for $5.85 million. Technically, he did not request the property be named after him, but county officials did, to honor his commitment to preservation.
“We had people that would have paid more money for the site for development purposes … and that area was prime for mining as well,” said Ed Bonkowski, who brokered the deal with the county. “But Mr. Galloway wanted it to remain a wetland.”
There are two more sites – 125 acres on Pine Island being considered and 541 acres between State Road 82 and Southwest Florida International Airport.
The 541-acre site, known as the Elizabeth and Thomas Muraro Tract, is approved for purchase. Final approval will depend on the property owners’ offer, which commissioners must support to acquire the land.
Elizabeth Muraro and her father Thomas could not be reached for comment last week.
The final site, on Pine Island, became available the same way as the Daniels property. Its owner, Jack Carver, who arrived in Lee County in 1970, wants to preserve the beauty of the area.
“The only way to protect it from development is to preserve it,” Carver said.
The property is known as Carver Preserve and awaits commission approval for purchase. If Carver and commissioners agree on a price, the property will belong to the public.
“This is what makes us different from the east coast” of Florida, Commissioner Bob Janes said. “Preserved open space is what makes the west coast a great place to live.”
Posted in Lehigh Acres News | Tagged land values, lee county, lehigh acres, lehigh acres land, property name, property values, vacant land values | Leave a Comment »
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