Every few weeks, real estate agent Roger Palmieri pulls a well-worn New York Yankees baseball cap onto his head, changes out of his shirt and tie and goes on a little neighborhood stroll.
He walks up one side of the street and down the other, most of the time silently hanging fliers on doorknobs. But if people are out pulling weeds or getting the mail, Palmieri strikes up a conversation, asking if they realize how hot the housing market is and whether they'd like to sell their homes.
"Nine times out of 10, the answer is no," said Palmieri, of Century 21 America's Choice in West Palm Beach. "But the answer will always be no if you don't ask."
The traditional spring selling season has arrived, but what it lacks this year are sellers. Housing inventories are hovering near their lowest levels in more than a decade, creating a free-for-all mentality among investors and other buyers competing for a limited supply of homes.
To shake listings loose, agents are knocking on doors, sending out postcards and checking back with clients who previously took their homes off the market. Other agents are even calling for-sale-by-owners, hoping to persuade them to change their minds and list their homes.
Whatever it takes.
"Even the most experienced agents are having to return to some of the basics to increase their listing inventory," said Jim Heidisch, broker of Campbell & Rosemurgy in Pompano Beach.
In February, Broward County had 10,775 homes and condos on the market, down 16 percent from a year ago. Palm Beach County listings fell 40 percent to 13,829 over the same period. The local Realtor boards could not provide inventory figures prior to 2012.
CondoVultures, a Bal Harbour-based consulting firm, has tracked South Florida's inventory for the past four years. In that time, Broward listings have dropped 63 percent, while Palm Beach County is down 45 percent.
Markets are constrained everywhere. In January, there were 1.77 million homes and condominiums listed for sale nationwide, the fewest since December 1999, according to the National Association of Realtors. Listings rose to 1.94 million in February, but the supply remains tight.
A few factors have contributed to the low inventory. New construction fell sharply during the housing bust, limiting the opportunities for resales now, said Walter Molony, a spokesman for the national Realtor group.
When prices plunged, millions of homeowners lost equity, putting them "underwater" on their mortgages. Even though values are rebounding, many homeowners still can't sell without bringing thousands of dollars to the closing table.
Meanwhile, a large contingent of homeowners who have equity are keeping their properties off the market, figuring they have weathered the downturn and now want to see prices keep rising before they consider selling.
"Unless they are very motivated and have a specific reason to sell, they're holding out," said Michele Bellisari, an agent with Re/Max Services in Boca Raton.
Local agents say the market desperately needs a boost from thousands of distressed homes still sitting on banks' books and not yet listed for sale.
But lenders have proven to be reluctant sellers as well, not releasing many of the properties for fear of hurting prices. When the homes do sell, they're being snapped up by investment firms before the properties even hit the multiple listing service.
"Think of it this way: In a typical market of 300 homes, you'd normally have 25 or 30 for sale, but now there are only eight to 13, and half of those have defects," said Scott Agran, head of Lang Realty in Palm Beach and Broward counties. "If you're a buyer, you don't have a lot of choices."
That's why Palmieri and other agents are pounding the pavement.
Palmieri likes to walk neighborhoods late in the week because he wants to give homeowners something to think about over the weekend.
Palmieri picked the middle-class community of one- and two-story homes because the inventory shortage is particularly acute there. Only about 1 percent of the 999 homes in North Palm Beach Heights are for sale, he said.
Along the way, he ran into Richard and Doris Yates lounging on their front porch. Richard Yates, a 65-year-old landscaper, notices that for-sale signs don't stay up very long these days.
The Yateses politely listened to Palmieri's spiel but said they aren't yet ready to list their 1,800-square-foot home, in part because they need prices to keep rising.
The couple bought for $118,000 in 1999, records show. The value escalated to as high as $350,000 during the boom, according to Richard Yates. Palm Beach County appraised the home last year for about $150,000.
"If somebody would come and give us $300,000, I'd take it, but now we'd be lucky to get $220,000," he said. "We waited too long."
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