October 20, 2014 | Updated 11:49am

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The Seller And The Ostrich

The biggest open question remaining in the housing market is what it’s going to take to get sellers to return to the market.

Ever since housing began its long slide in 2008 (or 2006 for us in Massachusetts) thousands of people have been forced to confront the crisis — either because they fell behind on their payments or were scrambling to avoid foreclosure, or because a change in life circumstances forced them into the market. But the vast majority of homeowners have stayed employed, kept current on the payments, and stayed put — listening to the constant drumbeat of bad housing news but, like the mythical ostrich, able to just plunge their heads in the sand and grit on through the crisis. The question is when will they come up for air?

Because the constant blare of bad news has quieted. For months now, the story in housing has been one of buyers returned to the market — particularly first timer anxious to opt out of the Boston area’s high rents — and sales are shooting back up toward healthy levels. But most real estate agents I talk to say all those eager buyers have yet to meet their match on the sell side. In more popular areas, multiple bids are the norm and buyer frustrations are mounting. But sellers still seem to be deaf to their cries.

Of course, no amount of pretty metaphors can conceal the fact that a lot of sellers simply can’t afford to sell at today’s prices. But even those who bought in the boom have had five years to build equity. Estimates from data firms like CoreLogic put the percentage of Massachusetts homeowners who are underwater at less than 20 percent. So will it take years of hard slog and slowly rising prices to convince sellers to dip a toe back into the market? Or will small boost in confidence be enough to get that other 80 percent of homeowners to start thinking about moving on up? The speed and strength of the recovery rests on the answer.

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