TAMPA -- Real estate manager Lynn Mooney, whose turf is the retirement community of Sun City Center, usually has her hands full with retirees looking for a good buy. But this year is different.

Refugees from colder climates are having trouble unloading their homes. So for now, at least, they're staying with the snow.

"With the real estate market so bad up north right now, it's harder for them to just sell their homes and come down here -- they have to wait," Mooney said.

And that, economists say, is hurting Florida's construction business and unemployment rate, which at 6.7 percent is outpacing the nation's 5.6 percent.

"We're seeing the same kind of ripple effect in just about every state where retirees from the Northeast tend to settle," said Robert Villanueva, economic forecaster for the National Association of Home Builders.

He added that new housing starts in Florida have dropped 18 percent; in California, 19 percent.

In the past, retirees would come to Sun City Center and plunk down up to $300,000 for a new home -- money they don't have now, Mooney said.

And some who do come are forced to take out mortgages or forgo their dreams of a retirement home in favor of renting or moving into a condominium, which also adds to the slump in new construction.

Construction unemployment took the biggest bite out of the state's work force of 5.5 million people, according to August figures from the Florida Department of Labor.

Unemployment in construction rose nearly 5 percent in the past year, accounting for 15,900 jobs. Depository institutions lost 6,000 jobs in the same period and manufacturing 5,000.

While Florida's unemployment is high, none of the blame can go to its biggest industry -- tourism. Employment in the service sector, which includes hotels and amusement parks, grew nearly 7 percent in the past year, picking up 105,000 new jobs.

"It's hard to pin unemployment on one thing," said Becky Rust, an economist with Florida's Labor Market Information Bureau in Tallahassee. "High interest rates, expectations of a recession and a continually growing population don't help at all."

Economists say those factors will also help to keep the state's construction and related employment on the downside for years.

Villanueva predicts new-home starts in Florida won't begin to recover until at least the middle of the decade, with a slowdown in the influx of retirees a factor.

Demographer Stephen Golant of the University of Florida said economics won't be the only reason for the retiree slowdown. In a recent study, he predicted the drop will continue through the 1990s as the population of the 65-74 age group shrinks in the nation's colder climes.

From now to the year 2000, he predicts an 8 percent drop in the number of older people migrating to Florida from the Northeast and Midwest.

The 1980 census showed that, as migration peaked in the late 1970s, more than 80,000 people older than 60 were moving to Florida annually.