A periodic blog dedicated to providing commentary and encouraging debate on topics in Economics and Finance.

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Age: 26 Occupation: Private Equity

Friday, March 28, 2008

Waiting for that one, dumb home buyer

Tim Iacono, in his fantastic blog "The Mess that Greenspan Made," has some great points in his post below.

Waiting for that one, dumb home buyer

Amid the very low real estate sales volume in many parts of the country today, the prices of those few homes that are sold are now falling much faster than the asking prices of homes currently for sale.

That fact is clear to see in many neighborhoods as sellers sit and wait, either not knowing or not caring that they have little chance of getting anywhere close to what they're asking unless that one, dumb home buyer shows up who knows less about real estate market conditions than they do.

The New York Times had a story about this yesterday - what some call "riding the market down" - and they touched on a couple of the key issues:
In most other areas of the economy, this combination of plummeting sales and stable prices would not happen. When demand for airline tickets drops, the airlines cut their prices until they have sold their seats. When stocks become less appealing, share prices fall, sometimes sharply.

Just try to imagine stock prices staying roughly flat over a three-year period while sales volumes sank because investors considered the market overvalued. Bear Stearns is still worth $150 a share, and I’m not selling until someone pays me $150!

Real estate, though, is different. For both economic and psychological reasons, there is no asset more conducive to hopeful overvaluation.
That means real estate slumps tend to grind on for years, until sellers submit to reality and reduce their prices.
In many ways, it would be better if the housing correction would happen more swiftly and sharply. The pain might be worse, but it would be over quickly. We seem to understand this principle when we’re removing a bandage. Why, then, is it so much harder with housing?

Because houses are almost perfectly engineered to trick owners into overvaluing them.

For starters, people have an obvious emotional connection to their house. After you have raised a family or enjoyed long meals with friends there, you are naturally going to place a higher value on it than a dispassionate buyer would. It’s your home.
David Laibson, a leading behavioral economist, categorizes this sort of behavior under the heading of “the principle of the matter.” His point is that people often go to great lengths to avoid taking a loss — or simply having to acknowledge one. “Even a small loss evokes a sense of frustration,” said Mr. Laibson, a professor at Harvard. “There’s something magical about ‘at least breaking even.’ ”

Often, this hurts no one so much as it hurts the would-be sellers. They stay in homes where they no longer want to live, rather than accepting their loss and moving on. Or they move but endure the hassle of renting out their old home, waiting, usually in vain, for the mythical buyer who understands its charms. All the while, their money is tied up in the house, and inflation is eating away at its real value.
There are a bunch of houses in our neighborhood that have been on the market since 2006 and the asking price hasn't budged. In some cases the price has been lowered by a tiny amount - for example, from $595,000 to $589,000 - in what seems to be a mini-capitulation for the benefit of either themselves or their real estate agent.

They look ridiculously out of place now that bank foreclosures are coming onto the market priced hundreds of thousands of dollars lower.

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