Slower growth expected for South Florida home prices in 2014

Realtor Douglas Rill recently received a contract on this brand new West Palm Beach home three lots off of South Flagler Driver in an area known as SoSo, or South of Southern. Mark Randall, South Florida Sun Sentinel

It's been a wild ride for South Florida home prices over the past 14 years.

The housing boom of 2000 to 2005 brought record growth, with many middle-income consumers taking out toxic mortgages to buy homes they couldn't afford. That led to the epic downturn, in which thousands of foreclosures sliced home values in half.

The bounce-back from the bottom in 2012 and 2013 also was intense, with investors fueling a resurgence in housing that saw bidding wars and fast price increases.

But 2014 might be the year the market finally takes a breath.

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Analysts predict prices will stop rising at a breakneck pace, bringing moderation to the market and making homes a more stable and predictable investment.

"What I'm seeing is the rate of growth will be slower — but that's a positive thing," said Jonathan Gelman, a real estate lawyer for the Greenberg Traurig firm in Fort Lauderdale. "A slower rate of growth will help us avoid the frothiness or a bubble in the market."

On an annual basis, the median single-family home price in Broward County has increased by more than 20 percent for 12 consecutive months, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Realtors said recently. Palm Beach County's median has jumped by double digits for 13 months in a row, according to the Realtors Association of the Palm Beaches.

Historically, home values increase at about 4 percent a year.

While the price spikes have been a boon for long-suffering sellers, the substantial increases aren't sustainable, market watchers say.

"You don't want to have home-price gains outpace gains in income — otherwise, you end up with an affordability problem," said Mike Larson, a housing analyst with Weiss Research in Jupiter. "You'd have people being priced out of the market again."

Despite the large annual price increases, there are signs that the market is slowing down.

Broward's median has remained at $270,000 for three consecutive months. Palm Beach County's median of $252,000 has stayed near $250,000 since July.

Buoyed by higher home prices, more owners are listing their properties for sale. The better selection for buyers is helping to restore balance to the market.

With fewer bargain homes available, investors are gradually pulling out of the area, creating opportunities for traditional buyers.

But financing remains a problem and will serve to keep a lid on pricing, said Lewis Goodkin, a longtime South Florida housing consultant.

He said many lenders have overly strict underwriting standards or refuse to enter the mortgage market at all.

"I'm not talking about people who shouldn't be buying because they can't afford a home," Goodkin said. "But there are people who are genuinely qualified but don't have big down payments and they can't get into homes."

A leveling of prices in 2014 will make conditions less favorable for sellers, experts say. Sellers will face more competition and won't be able to dictate terms as they did in 2013.

"There is a window of opportunity," said Douglas Rill, broker for Century 21 America's Choice in West Palm Beach. "But it's really important that if a seller has something, they should get it on the market quickly."

Buyers, meanwhile, are ready to reclaim some of the power they enjoyed during the housing heyday.