Florida's home vacancy rates, No. 1 in nation, are drag on recovery

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Robert Trigaux

Published March 22, 2011

Florida has roughly half the population of California, but more vacant houses. In fact, Florida, has more vacant houses 1,567,778, more than one out of every six than any state in the country.

It's a dire statistic offered up last week by the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 survey. The data reinforce how the Sunshine State got so grossly overbuilt, how many people lost their houses to foreclosure, and how many simply walked away from homes. Now that the pace of state population growth is more modest, it will take a good long while for these empty homes to be absorbed by new households.

The state housing overhang is big and painful and raising questions. Who's maintaining many of these vacant homes nobody in many cases and what happens if a big chunk of those houses fall into disrepair and can't be sold?

In all, 17.5 percent of the homes in the state are vacant, according to the 2010 census survey. The census took a snapshot of occupied and vacant housing in this country as of April 1 last year. That statewide vacancy rate is up 34 percent from 2000 when the last big census survey was conducted.

Some parts of Florida are emptier than others.

Some small-population counties have huge home vacancy rates, the census survey found. Along the Panhandle coast near Port St. Joe, for example, Franklin and adjacent Gulf County suffered 51 and 41 percent vacancy rates, respectively.

Among more populated counties in the state, southwest Florida is ground zero for vacancies. At the top of the list is Collier County, home to upscale Naples, where one of every three homes is vacant. Right behind are Lee (Fort Myers), Charlotte (Port Charlotte) and Sarasota counties.

If there's a silver lining, Florida's statewide vacancy rate is down from its peak of just above 20 percent early last year.

Local Market Monitor, a North Carolina-based real estate research firm, puts Florida's housing vacancy rate at 18 percent at the end of 2010. That's high, but also down from the peak.

Carolyn Beggs, the firm's chief operating officer, said vacancy rates vary greatly by markets that can include vacation homes and seasonal properties. It is the direction of the rate she watches more than the rate itself.

"Florida, unfortunately, is lagging behind the housing recovery in California," Beggs says. Look for housing prices to continue to drop, although modestly, for another 12 to 18 months in the state, she projects.

Want to look for signs of improving real estate? Look first for jobs to be created, not lost in Florida, Beggs says. And look for Florida's unemployment rate (11.9 percent in January) to start declining.

Says an upbeat Beggs: "The days of 20 percent price declines are pretty much behind us."

Let's hope so. But I wonder: How much more price discounting will it take to move so many vacant homes?

Lots of empty Florida houses

Statewide, 18 percent of Florida homes are vacant.

Counties with high vacancies

Franklin 51 percent
Gulf 41 percent
Collier 33 percent
Lee 30 percent
Charlotte 27 percent
Sarasota 23 percent
Tampa Bay area vacancies  
Pinellas 17 percent
Hillsborough 12 percent
Pasco 17 percent
Hernando 15 percent

19 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, as of April 1, 2010