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Miami Herald surveys South Florida housing market

There have been worse times to sell your house in South Florida, but not many.

The Case-Shiller index shows the region’s real estate values have dropped, on average, 49 percent since their peak in late 2006.

That grim statistic actually helps explain why South Florida’s real estate market seems to be hopping again. With prices so low, homeowners don’t want to sell if they aren’t forced to. That’s led to a tight supply of listings, just as buyers feel more confident that the market either won’t get worse or is actually back on the rise.

“A few years ago, there was such a bounty of choices and great prices,’’ said Jason Smith, a real estate agent with Keller Williams’ Showcase Miami office. “But it took some courage to pull the trigger back then.”

How tight has the market gotten? Is it really that hard to find a house?

Business Monday set out to see firsthand. We dispatched seven writers across South Florida, each with their own house-hunting assignment. From a South Beach studio for under $200,000 to a spacious Weston home for under $500,000, we tried to cover as much of the South Florida housing spectrum as we could.

In general, real estate agents told us the same thing: Quality homes are limited, and buyers will pounce if the price is low enough. But try to push the limits of the current market, and sellers can expect their listings to sit and sit. Prices seem to have bounced off the bottom in the last six months: up 4 percent according to Case-Shiller. Only Phoenix has seen a bigger rebound.

But for all of the confident talk among real estate agents, bankers don’t seem to have gotten the message. Mortgages remain a challenge at all price levels, making cash buyers the stars of the market. Agents said they’ve seen deal after deal fall apart once the appraisal report came back with a value far lower than the negotiated price.

“There’s a gap between what the market is willing to pay, and what the bank appraisers are saying the values are,’’ said Ivory Cooks, a Coldwell Banker agent. “It’s getting better. A little bit better.”

Douglas Hanks