Katie Jaffe bought a two-bedroom Tamarac villa in 2004. More than a year later, her mother, convinced that the housing boom was ending, told her to sell.
Jaffe didn't listen.
The $172,000 home lost about half its value in the ensuing bust, leaving Jaffe with a property she couldn't unload.
"It's been a noose around my neck," Jaffe said.
But after nine years, she finally found a buyer this fall and closed on the deal last week
South Florida home prices have increased by more than 20 percent in the past year, restoring lost equity and giving thousands of dispirited homeowners new hope.
"It's a great feeling," said Xxxxx Xxxxxxxx, Jaffe's real estate agent. "The stress people have been under these last few years has been immense."
In the third quarter alone, more than 25,000 homeowners in Broward and Palm Beach counties saw their values rise above what they owe, according to Zillow.com, the Seattle-based real estate website. Since the third quarter of last year, nearly 71,000 homeowners in the two counties have been freed from "underwater" mortgages.
While nearly 30 percent of homeowners with a mortgage in Palm Beach and Broward remain underwater, the so-called negative equity rate is down from roughly 40 percent a year ago — the biggest decline since Zillow started tracking the problem in 2011.
As prices rise, short sales — getting the bank's permission to sell for less than what's owed on the mortgage — are making up a smaller portion of the region's housing market, according to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure listing firm.
"South Florida isn't back to normal and completely healthy, but it's well on its way," said Svenja Gudell, a senior economist for Zillow. "Gosh, compared to three years ago, it's so much better."
After peaking at $391,100 in November 2005, Broward County's median home price plunged by more than 50 percent by the time the market finally hit bottom in early 2012, according to the Florida Realtors trade group.
Palm Beach County's peak median, $421,500, fell by nearly 60 percent over the same period.
The devastating declines — the worst since the Great Depression — unleashed a wave of foreclosures. Some owners continued making mortgage payments, but they were stuck, unable to sell and move for new jobs or to be near family.
The most practical solution for many was a short sale, but the deals often took months to arrange, and there was no guarantee the lenders would approve.
Jaffe attempted a short sale last year, but the lender denied her request. If she wanted to sell then, she would have had to bring about $49,000 to the closing table.
The 37-year-old mother of two, who has since remarried and moved to Coral Springs, ended up renting her Tamarac villa but hated being a landlord and still lost about $200 each month.
"Many people were just left to wait, with no telling how many years before the market would return to positive appreciation," said Jack McCabe, a housing analyst in Deerfield Beach.
The market began to stabilize when investors and other buyers went looking for bargains. The rush eventually forced prices back up.
Median prices in Palm Beach and Broward counties have jumped by double digits in every month this year, though the year-to-year increases have slowed since the summer. In 2014, analysts expect home values to appreciate closer to the traditional 4 percent a year.
Jaffe listed her home for sale nearly three months ago. The buyer paid $140,000, requiring her to kick in only $3,400 to close the deal.
The $200 a month she'll save from the previous shortfall on the rent will go to pay for preschool for her 2-year-old daughter, Abbie. Jaffe was ecstatic as she left Friday's closing.
"I told my parents, 'It's over! It's over!'" Jaffe said. "It's such relief. I'm so happy to get rid of that part of my life."
© 2013 Sun-Sentinel
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