Housing Market Gridlock: Buyers Are Eager, but Sellers Are Scarce

The housing market typically comes to life in spring, when buyers emerge in the warmer weather. This year, the market appears stuck in a deep freeze, and the biggest culprit is a lack of sellers, housing experts say.

There is interest among buyers — mortgage applications were up 10 percent in March from the month before — but the number of homes for sale is low. The mismatch is caused in part by homeowners who are inclined to sell but are sitting on the sidelines, scared off by the steep prices and mortgage rates that they would face as buyers.

More than three-quarters of sellers in a recent survey by Realtor.com said they felt “locked in” to their home by their own low mortgage rate, according to a recent survey by Realtor.com. More than half said they planned to wait until rates fell before putting their homes on the market.

Sandy Robinson, a 71-year-old retired teacher in Fairhaven, Mass., is daunted by the market. She would like to sell her two-bedroom townhouse but is worried about being able to afford a new home. “It’s a little scary now, and you have to be careful,” she said.

A stalemate has mired the housing market, when it should be more robust. Sales of existing homes in March were down 22 percent from the year before, according to the National Association of Realtors. The inventory of unsold homes on the market at the end of March totaled 2.6 months’ supply, meaning it would take that long to sell them. Inventory is typically twice that amount to balance supply and demand.

“We are in a real gridlock situation,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at the Navy Federal Credit Union. “It’s going to be a tortuous process to unfreeze the market and take a long time to get back to a normal supply-and-demand situation.”

Fewer homes for sale mean more competition among buyers, which leads to bidding wars and drives up prices. Although down from recent highs, the average price of a house remains about 40 percent higher than at the beginning of 2020, according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index, which measures prices across the nation.

“Everybody is a little surprised at the level of price resilience,” said Todd Teta, chief product and technology officer for Attom Data Solutions, a real estate analytics firm.

Matt Berger would like to sell his three-bedroom starter home in Lebanon, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and two young children, but is holding back. “It feels tight now, and will only get tighter as the kids grow,” he said.

They are looking to move closer to Cincinnati, but homes they could afford a year ago are now out of their price range. Adding to the pressure is the low mortgage rate on their current home: “We are in the mid-threes” — roughly half the national average — “and I’d hate to have to say goodbye to that,” said Mr. Berger, 42.

“It’s a doubly whammy of the higher interest rates and the home values being so high, and that is scaring us off,” he added. He and his wife are hoping that mortgage rates will fall and they find a cheaper home in a year or two, before their children are settled in school.

The average rate on the most popular home loan, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, is 6.43 percent, Freddie Mac reported on Thursday, more than twice what it was two years ago. Mortgage rates peaked above 7 percent late last year, but the decline since then has been slow and uneven.

To get sellers more motivated again, rates will have to fall to the “magic mortgage rate” of 5.5 percent, according to a survey by John Burns Research and Consulting. More than 70 percent of prospective home buyers told the researchers that they were not willing to accept a mortgage above that rate.

“Homeowners seem to be pretty patient right now,” said Maegan Sherlock, a senior research analyst at John Burns. “Until things get a little better, those people are going to hold out,” she added.

Most industry experts believe the tipping point is still a ways off. “This is going to be a transition year,” said Danielle Hale, the chief economist of Realtor.com. “As we move into 2024, we should see more people with an appetite to buy.”

The market also may thaw as demand from frustrated buyers is met by home builders, which “historically created first-time home opportunities and move-up opportunities,” said Mr. Teta of Attom.

A lack of inventory of existing homes appears to be pushing buyers to newly built homes, a smaller market where sales have held up better. Sales of new single-family homes jumped nearly 10 percent in March from the month before, according to the Census Bureau.

The National Association of Realtors forecasts that sales of new homes will increase 4.5 percent this year and 12 percent in 2024. It expects existing-home sales to drop about 9 percent this year and then bounce back in 2024.

And there are always reasons that reluctant homeowners could be compelled to sell, like job relocations, downsizing or divorce, said Iliana Abella, executive director of sales at the Abella Group, a real estate brokerage in Miami.

“If you are planning to stay in your home for longer than five years, 6 percent is not going to kill you,” she said of current interest rates.

Still, many homeowners are content to wait.

Ellen Goldman, a 72-year-old retired lawyer in Naples, Fla., is looking to downsize. She and her husband, Sam Savage, have lived in their two-story home since 2004, but realize that the stairs will get more difficult as they age.

“We both work out, and it’s not an issue,” Ms. Goldman said, adding that “we want to make the move now before it becomes too hard.”

But they are in no rush. “We don’t have to do this,” she said, as they keep an eye on local prices. “We would be fine staying, too.”

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