TAMPA, Fla. - Nov. 17, 2009 - Real estate agent Ken Brownlee's phone stopped ringing last month once clients figured they would be unable to close before an $8,000 federal tax credit expired.
Most of his buyers were first-timers looking for a sweet deal on a short sale or foreclosed home.
"They all want to grab a deal," said Brownlee, an agent with Keller Williams.
Those buyers now have another chance since Congress extended the program earlier this month. Real estate agents say it could mean a boon for sales.
First-time buyers can get a credit up to $8,000 and other buyers are eligible for a credit of $6,500, as long as they've lived in their home for at least five years. Congress also expanded it to include some buyers who already own homes.
Business picked up immediately, Brownlee said.
"As soon as it passed, I started to get a lot more phone calls and website hits on my listings," he said. "This tax credit will likely carry us through the normally slow season."
That's good news for the Bay area's fragile housing market. As the area continues to see improvement in home sales, real estate agents say the tax credit is essential in selling off inventory. Home prices have plummeted and that has enticed buyers to act, but many are still on the sidelines.
Home sales in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area increased 20 percent in the third quarter, which ended Sept. 30. Experts credit the increase mainly to first-time buyers trying to take advantage of the tax credit.
There were 7,795 sales in the quarter, up from 6,502 during the same period a year ago, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. At the same time, the median sales price fell 17 percent to $140,400.
One reason is that so many people feel stuck in their homes. They want to take advantage of deep discounts, but they have to sell their existing home in order to move up. With nearly half of Tampa Bay's homeowners owing more than their home is worth, many can't afford to move.
That's why the tax credit will help, said Stephanie LeFew, a real estate agent with Tampa Home Buy Realty. She's had a number of clients decide to stay in their homes because they couldn't sell for enough to make a move worth it.
"For some people, the credit will be just enough of a boost," she said.
Mike Larson, an analyst with Weiss Research, said home sales would likely continue to improve, even without the tax credit. Even so, he expects the credit to lure more people into the market.
"The credit is the icing on the cake, not the cake itself," he said. "What's really leading to improvement is that homes are affordable again. If you throw an expanded credit into a market that already has good fundamentals, the market will respond."
To take advantage of the credit, a prospective buyer's home has to be under contract by April 30 and the deal must close by June 30.
Copyright © 2009 Tampa Tribune, Fla., Shannon Behnken. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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