A healthy housing market functions like a gigantic escalator.
The bottom rungs are occupied by first-time Buyers. As they purchase entry-level homes, the Sellers of those homes (“Move-up Buyers”) typically buy larger homes, enabling Sellers of those homes to buy even bigger homes.
And so on, and so on.
One of the most remarked consequences of the housing bear market the last three(?) years is that falling real estate prices have clobbered the equity of move-up Buyers.
So, the money they need for a downpayment to buy a bigger home is either diminished — or gone.
In the most distressed housing markets — places like Florida and Las Vegas — many people who bought at the peak are now “underwater” (they owe more than their home is worth) to the tune of tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars.
Voila! No more moving escalator.
Stranded at the “Top of the Food Chain”
All of the foregoing is now very-well documented.
Less remarked is the plight of the “move-down Buyer” — the owner of a bigger home, typically close to retirement age, who is ready for a smaller dwelling, but is unable to sell (also known as a “down-sizer”).
If move-down Buyers are lucky, they bought decades ago, and have so much equity that even a 30% drop in housing prices still leaves them able to sell (and they’ve been prudent enough — and financially secure enough — to leave that equity untapped through the years).
It’s also true that financial products like reverse mortgages can help move-down Buyers (at least the ones over 62 years old) transition to a smaller home.
However, the flip side of buying a bigger home decades ago is that the same home today could easily require hundreds of thousands of dollars of updating and remodeling to appeal to today’s (financially hamstrung) Buyers.
Even if those Buyers can still muster a six-figure downpayment and qualify for a jumbo mortgage, coming up with a couple hundred grand for remodeling, out-of-pocket is (often) the kiss of death.
So what happens?
Move-down Buyers can’t sell, which means that the owners of homes at lower price rungs can’t sell — and so on, and so on.
Public Policy Implications
The foregoing dynamic suggests that the best way to unfreeze the housing market isn’t to buttress first-time Buyers, as policymakers have done so far.
Rather, the smarter approach is to help move-down Buyers.
That could be done by making a pot of cheap money available to Buyers undertaking major remodeling (cheap purchase money, courtesy of the Fed, doesn’t do it); by giving tax credits to Buyers who tackle such projects; or even by giving incentives to investors to buy and remodel such homes.
Such a strategy not only would unlock the housing market’s frozen upper brackets, but it would have a huge ripple (multiplier) effect as billions of dollars spent on labor and materials coursed through the economy.
Which all makes eminent, common sense.
After all, as everyone knows, a working escalator needs to go down as well as up.