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Address | fall house hunt

How to keep your sanity in this housing market

For today’s buyers, the housing market is a lot like a reality TV show. There are multiple players, big money at stake, and dashed dreams. But keep at it, because procrastinating might wind up costing you more.

Engaged couple Will Charnley (left) and Tara Prince looked at a condo for sale in Somerville with their real estate agent, Peter Skambas.
Engaged couple Will Charnley (left) and Tara Prince looked at a condo for sale in Somerville with their real estate agent, Peter Skambas. Photos by katherine taylor for the boston globe

Location, location, location. Forever, the mantra in real estate has been the same.

But in 2015 — with inventory low and competition high — agents have a new catchphrase, and it sounds more like advice from a lonely hearts columnist than a realtor: There’s more than one fish in the sea.

“I tell them that if it was meant to be, it will happen,” said Jacquelyn Santini, an agent in Wilmington.

“You just have to keep getting back out there,” said Debra Robinson, an agent in Milton.

“Things happen for a reason,” said Jayne Friedberg, an agent in Brookline.

It would be comforting to believe the real estate gods have some larger, benign housing plan in mind, but The Outbid worry that they’re trapped in an endless game of musical chairs, doomed to end up seatless when the music stops.

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In the past 18 months, Kathleen Henry, 66, a writer from Jamaica Plain , has looked at 30 condos. She’s made bids — or tried to — on six places and lost out on all of them, including a beautiful two-plus bedroom in Coolidge Corner that went under agreement 11 hours after it came on the market. “I’ve got to take a break,” Henry said a few days after the latest condo slipped away. “I can’t face the disappointment.”

Each open house may be brief, but before making a bid, Henry spends hours running numbers — on condo fees, needed repairs, taxes — and becomes emotionally involved. “I’m already picturing myself hanging curtains,” she said.

Statistics on the number of homes that trigger bidding wars — and hence disappoint multiple families in a single swoop — are hard to come by, but here is what is known:

In the first quarter of 2015, 23 percent of the homes sold in Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, and Suffolk counties went above asking price, according to The Warren Group , a real estate and financial information firm.

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The average single-family house in Greater Boston spent 55 days on the market this July, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors (MAR), compared with 86 days in July 2010 and 155 in March 2007, the longest in the association’s records — and a time when sellers, not buyers, felt desperate.

Further, it takes state home buyers 16 weeks to find a place — six weeks more than the national average, according to MAR. Another insult: With interest rates and home prices expected to climb, according to realtor.com, “the financial penalties of delaying or forgoing a home purchase in today’s market have become very steep.”

In Boston, the “penalty” for delaying a purchase for a year is $23,074 in lost assets over a 30-year period, according to Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for realtor.com, which lists homes for sale and rent and partners with the National Association of Realtors.

Real estate agents have yet to label the emotional state persistent lookers find themselves in, but it’s not dissimilar to the five stages of grief psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described:

Denial: “There’s no way they’re going to get anything near asking price — there’s not even a bathroom on the first floor.”

Anger: “I hate people who can pay all cash.”

Bargaining: “I promise I’ll be happy with a nonworking fireplace.”

Depression: “My ceilings will always be eight feet or lower.”

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Acceptance: “I’ll have to sign a lease for another year.”

Cambridge agent Ed Greable has noticed a sixth stage: Blame.

“Sometimes they start to say: ‘Wait a second, what’s wrong with my agent? Why is he not getting me these properties?’ ” Greable said.

“But it’s not me. When you come up against 10 offers, and they are cash with no contingencies, and we’re 20 percent down with a mortgage contingency, how can you compete?”

Agents who have worked with clients who have lost multiple homes say part of their job is preventing desperate moves — waiving mortgage or inspection contingencies when it would be irresponsible to do so or offering too much.

“I tell them not to get emotionally involved,” said Peter Skambas, an agent in the Somerville area, “but it’s hard not to get attached.”

Realtors’ warnings aside, one analysis found that in 2014, monthly pending sales rose dramatically, often by double digits, but sales that were taken to completion fell by 2 percent.

“There are two possible explanations,” said Timothy Warren, whose group analyzed MAR data. “One is that a lot of deals fall apart because someone in a bidding frenzy got cold feet and backed out. The other is that the price was bid up so high that the [bank’s] appraisal won’t support it and they can’t get a mortgage.”

Today’s buyers are competing in a market with demand that’s been building since 2007, Warren said, a situation that has resulted in about 120,000 fewer home sales than there would normally have been in that time period.

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“People got scared during the recession, and especially with all of publicity about foreclosures, it seemed like a terrible time to buy, so people kept postponing it,” he said. “They were having babies or their kids were moving out of the house, but no one wanted to change houses. But when the economy turned around, everyone started looking at the same time.”

Enter Will Charnley, a program supervisor at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay, and his fiancé, Tara Prince. The twenty-somethings are renting a one-bedroom apartment in Brighton and trying — and trying — to buy a two-bedroom condo in Somerville.

They’ve lost out on three places so far, and the quest for a little outdoor space on a quiet street has worked its way into Charnley’s psyche. New listings are always on his mind.

“I’ll look on my phone on the way to work, then check at lunch, then on the way back,” he said. “But if you get to Wednesday night and there’s no place [to look at over the weekend], you get this kind of down feeling.”

But then a listing appears!

A recent evening found them poised to look at a $438,000 two-bedroom, one bath, 938-square-foot condo just a short walk from Davis Square, which in his mind was a blessing and a curse.

“I’m trying not to get overly optimistic,” he said, anticipating competition from investors and cash buyers because of the terrific location — and how he’ll feel if the place he hadn’t even seen yet goes to another bidder.

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“I’ll probably take a week off from looking,” he said, before quickly encouraging his future potentially disappointed self to stay in the game. “I’ll try not to get too wrapped. If we take time off, we could potentially miss a place.”

And so it continues.

Postscript

Charnley and his fiancé offered over asking, and after days of tension, at 7:30 p.m. that Sunday, Charnley’s phone rang.

It was the realtor.

“Part of me didn’t even want to pick up,” he said. “Tara was like, go in the other room, I don’t want to hear it. I don’t think we got it.”

But their turn had come. Their offer was accepted. With that, the couple entered the next stage of real estate hell: “The amount of paperwork you have to get together is crazy,” he said.

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.