Play devil's advocate to assess housing wants

Mood of the Market

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 2, 2011

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Mood of the Market

Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News™

As long as there have been artists and scientists, there have been probes into both the art and the science underlying what people want. In the digital world (which almost approximates the "real" world, at this moment in time), John Batelle coined the concept of the "database of intentions," an aggregation of what people are thinking about and want as indicated by what they search for and post online.

In the similarly data-driven realm of behavioral finance, Meir Statman recently cataloged his list of investor desires into the book "What Investors Really Want: Discover What Drives Investor Behavior and Make Smarter Financial Decisions."

This is the last week of our exploration into the parallels between Statman's list of investor desires and the desires of housing consumers (i.e., those who pay money for a place to live).

In the artistic world, Pablo Picasso went barely abstract when he painted his desires for his mistress over and over again (barely, inasmuch as his wife eventually figured out that the blonde in all those paintings wasn't a symbol of world peace -- she was the other woman); Christina Aguilera went all concrete with it in her teen-pop anthem "What a Girl Wants."

In between Pablo and Christina in time, Joni Mitchell spoke (rather, sang) on the subject of what people want in reverse, via her oft-quoted refrain that "you don't know what you've got till it's gone."

Unfortunately for many housing consumers, I have seen a steep uptick in their belated discovery of both what they had -- and what they want -- until after it's gone, in the context of their homes. These unfortunate realizations generally culminate a sequence of events that is sparked off by a homebuyer's, seller's or owner's action on one of the intentions detailed by Statman.

For example, we want to play an investment game -- and win. So homebuyers gamble that the seller of their dream home will be so desperate that they will take any offer, despite the insistence of the buyer's broker that there are multiple offers on the home -- even in this buyer's market.

Alas, only after the home is lost does the buyer realize that this game was not worth the gamble -- especially as it might take months more to find a similarly appropriate home for their family in that condition, even if the victorious price was still an amazing value and interest rates six months later might be significantly higher than they are currently.

We also want to maintain our mental accounts. So home sellers who had pushed their windfall-esque home equity over into the mental account that is labeled "assets" when they began to count it as part of their retirement-empowering net worth have become excruciatingly reluctant to revise this mental account's balance.

Some have decided to stay put and wait to sell until "values come back next year" for four years running, putting their entire lives on hold to maintain these mental accounts intact. Others have put their homes on the market, but insist on rigid and fantastical pricing based on their mental belief in their home's value, rather than letting the facts of what nearby homes are actually selling for direct their pricing decisions.

As a result, they set themselves up for long-term limbo as their homes linger on the market or collect lowball offers by buyers who sense desperation.

Also, we want more profits than we have losses. So, the homeowner who cashed out a couple of hundred of thousand dollars in home equity at the top of the market is now irate that their home's value has fallen. Despite not "sharing" any of their inflated equity with the bank, they now feel that the bank should most definitely share in their losses by way of a principal-reducing loan modification.

These blustery homeowners -- who had planned to stay in the home forever, have had no increase in mortgage payment or interest rate, and who have the same household income now as they always have -- stop making mortgage payments in an effort to "motivate" the bank into granting the loan modification they feel they deserve.

After six months of no payments (and redirecting their mortgage money to pay down credit card debt) and another six or nine months of "trial" modification payments, these homeowners are horrified to hear their homes will be foreclosed on, after their modifications are denied and their arrearages called due.

Upon receiving a notice of the foreclosure auction or an eviction notice, they finally appreciate (as Joni said they would) what they had, now that it's gone.

The deep, dark desires of investors in other asset classes and housing consumers are nearly identical on many levels. We all want investment wins, and profits exceeding any losses. We all want to invest in ways that protect and provide for our children.

We all want status -- whether it be as big spenders, or big savers (how else do you explain the need for a term like "frugalista"?). We don't want to pay taxes nor do we want to be poor.

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