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Psychoanalyzing Sellers

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By Steve Cook

Dreams Delayed, Dreams Abandoned
From 2007 to 2012, potential sellers were held captive in their homes by low prices. For one of my clients, Realtor.com, we conducted a major national survey in the spring of 2009 to look at this situation. We found that nearly one out of five homeowners had delayed selling their home because of the real estate crash. Empty nesters rattled around the family home they couldn’t sell. Young families piled kids in bunk beds and finished the basement because they couldn’t move. Grandma and grandpa moved into the room above the garage.

Even though at that time about 30 percent of homeowners with a mortgage were underwater and could not move, about the same percentage of all homeowners, 31 percent said they’d be motivated to sell their home if prices would just rise by 5 percent. In other words, the combination of pent up demand plus a modest financial incentive would have jump started the housing markets.

The home buyer tax credit took effect in 2009 and 2010. The credit provided $8,000 for first-time buyers and for 2010, $6500 for move up buyers. Yet despite the pent up demand among families anxious to move on with their lives, only 200,000 took advantage of the $6,500 incentive from Uncle Sam during the program’s first four months compared to twice as many first-time buyers. At the time, the relatively small incentive was widely blamed for the lack of response.

The following year, in April of 2010, we conducted another survey and asked some of the same questions. This time, only 19.3 percent of all homeowners said they had delayed selling their homes because of conditions in their local real estate market, a decline of about one third but still a healthy slice of homeowners. Half as many as the year before said they would be motivated to sell if prices rose 5 percent or 10 percent. We speculated that some of the ones we talked to in 2009 had taken the tax credit, but many more had not even though they were motivated to move. And even though the tax credit temporarily boosted home values, owners were telling us one of two things: now that they had experienced incremental increases in values, they weren’t large enough to motivate them to move or something else was going on. Moving wasn’t just about money. Other factors were equally important or more important than values and prices.

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