GAINESVILLE, FL-The latest consumer confidence survey by the University of Florida shows a three-point gain in September following a four-point pickup in August. The new number of 74 is higher than surveyors anticipated.

“Florida consumers are buying into the argument that the worst of the recession is over and we have avoided a complete meltdown,” says Chris McCarty, survey director of the UF Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Signs of economic improvement include a leveling off of prices for single-family homes and low gasoline prices, though statewide unemployment remains above 10%, he says.

Perceptions of personal finances over the past year remained unchanged, while those for the next five years were higher. McCarty says there is also the perception that now is a good time to buy if you have the money.

On the down side, statewide unemployment remains above 10% and Florida appears to be losing population, McCarty notes. Retail sales were at least temporarily lifted by federally funded programs such as “Cash for Clunkers” at auto dealerships, but sales tax revenue in Florida is down 10% from a year ago, he says.

“In the near term we expect consumer confidence to decline at least a point or two as the holiday season nears and stimulus programs like Cash for Clunkers and rebates for first-time home buyers expire,” McCarty says. “The discussion about health care reform will be at center stage this fall and may affect confidence if the plans involve increased payments from the middle class.”

The UF research center bases its monthly Florida Consumer Attitude Survey on responses by more than 400 state residents who were randomly telephoned. The index is benchmarked to 1966 with a 100 score for that year.

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