Housing market strengthens, but many owners still below sea level

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SARASOTA, Fla. - Home prices in Southwest Florida are soaring, but do the numbers mean the boom is back? It's not all good news; a good chunk of Suncoast homeowners are still underwater on their mortgage.

New reports show recovery for Suncoast housing is steadily on the rise, but about one in four Suncoast homeowners still find themselves underwater.

"It doesn't surprise me at all. The way everyone's been buying houses around here and then all of a sudden everything goes downhill." Homeowner Bill Friedman says he's exhausted all his options, and sees foreclosure as inevitable. "We had to remortgage. We had to refinance a couple times because of the recession and everything else…losing jobs."

But according to new data from Realtytrac, foreclosure rates in Sarasota County for the month of March have dropped 21% from February.

"My hopes are that we'll have steady, solid growth, but gradual growth and not skyrocketing to the point where we create another bubble," says homeowner Ralph Breeden, Jr.

The Sarasota Association of Realtors says this steady growth is the trend so far this year. "While we've had good increases, relative to where we were before, we still have a ways to go before we're at those boom-time prices," says Peter Crowley, president of the Sarasota Association of Realtors.

According to an association February MLS report, Sarasota County continues to see healthy year-over-year median sales price increases, and home sales were up 4% in February compared to the previous month.

"Surprisingly we're still seeing cash sales close to and in excess of 65% of all of our sales."

Crowley says this is rather unique to the Suncoast, and says the increase in cash sales is the result of increased investor activity and northern residents purchasing property.

And for those 28% who still find themselves underwater, realtors say there is hope. "As prices continue to go up, more and more of our homeowners are going to be in a situation where at a minimum they're in a neutral situation, but possibly have positive equity."

The Sarasota Association of Realtors will release the real estate market report for March on April 20th. They say March statistics were not what they expected, and they believe it may have to do with weather up north putting sales on hold.