Move Up Transactions Don't Just Happen

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One of the things I've heard and read other agents complaining about is that they can't find qualified buyers to represent.

Welcome to Unintended Consequences 101.

The way that the market had been working is this: Young, often unmarried, buyers buy a starter place, usually a condominium of some description. A few years later, once they're married and have a couple kids, they trade up, using their equity for the down payment and (usually) increased income in order to make the payments. They may do this a second time when the kids are teenagers, or when they get another rise in income. This is all simple demographics.

However, we all know that most buyers want to stretch to their maximum, and even a bit beyond, not understanding that there is no magic wand to make borrowing money more affordable. The absolute hardest thing for a buyer's agent who's trying to to their job correctly, is persuading buyers with property lust in their hearts to limit themselves to properties they really can afford. Traditionally, the penalty for failing to do this was a failed transaction, and a ticked off client who had already spent hundreds of dollars on appraisal, inspection etcetera, and quite often, multiple trips to the decorating store planning and a month or more fantasizing about the decorating they're going to do. When that all comes crashing down, it's kind of difficult to hold onto the client.

During the era of make believe loans, however, the immediate downside disappeared, and by the time people figured out that they couldn't really afford the property, those agents were long gone, with their commissions, leaving those buyers high and dry. With easy loan qualification, and initial payments way below a sustainable level, there was no immediate need to restrict themselves to selling what a client could afford. Since given one client or set of clients, most agents would rather make more money than less, they sold higher end properties than clients could really afford. The clients, for their part, were happy that there was no apparent need to spend years living in the lesser property, building equity.

However, by skipping over those starter properties, those agents greatly exacerbated their future problems. When the condominiums and other starter properties don't sell, the owners are stuck with them, and they cannot afford a larger, more expensive property until those properties do sell. These folks are the largest single source for buyers of archetypical three and four bedroom detached housing. If you bought a condo for $90,000 and sold it for $200,000, you have roughly $100,000 down payment for a $500,000 home. This lowers the payments from about $3415 (assuming PMI) to $2398, total cost of housing from roughly $4045 per month to $3030, and the income to qualify from $9000 per month to about $6730, a full 25% less, assuming no other debts. Considering the median family income is approximately $5500 per month in San Diego, this makes a major difference to how many people can qualify - far more than a proportional difference. Assuming a standard normal distribution, you're going from about 3.5 standard deviations over area median income to about one and a quarter. This increases the number of people who qualify from 233 in a million to 110,000 in a million (via Hyperstat). Now, you have 470 times as many people in your target group! But in order for this to happen, the condominiums and other starters have to sell.

The temptation is always there for agents want to hunt the big game, but now that the make-believe loans that enabled it are gone, we've got a situation. We've conditioned the public to believe that everyone can afford the property of their dreams, right off, and that's just not the case. This makes it much harder to sell them starter properties that fit within their budget. Their friend John or Jen was able to get that dream property, why can't they? The fact that John and Jen are fighting a losing battle against foreclosure doesn't enter their thought process. The people that already own the starter properties, having bought five or ten years ago and gotten to a position where they're ready to move up, can't. Not until the starter sells. This makes the crimp in the market far worse.

If condos and other starter properties don't sell, you don't have the usual influx of buyers with a down payment that enables them to afford more expensive properties. When you're essentially putting contact superglue on the bottom-most rung off the property ladder, you can't be too surprised when the higher rungs are vacant. So if you want buyers for higher end properties, and you want your higher end properties to sell, sell a few starters.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on November 23, 2007 7:00 AM.

An Apparent Red Flag that Isn't was the previous entry in this blog.

Asset and Income Rentals - Borrowing Trouble at Usurous Rates is the next entry in this blog.

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