I’m part of the problem.
Selma Hepp was talking about the housing market: how house prices remain wildly expensive compared with where they were a few years ago and how the inventory of homes for sale is still low. As chief economist for CoreLogic, a real estate data and consulting firm, Hepp predicts the course of rent and home sales with the math of charts and data. But instead of hard numbers, she was describing her weekend home search.
Hepp lives in Los Angeles, where she and her partner rent an apartment in the Mid City neighborhood. They are looking to buy, and despite making a barrage of offers, they keep getting outbid on area homes.
Their problem has an obvious remedy: Hepp owns a house in Burbank that she rents to other tenants. She could sell if she wanted, and use the cash to spruce up the next bid. Asked why she doesn’t do this, Hepp answered, “Why would I?”
The rental income more than covers the mortgage, she explained, which carries a 2.8% interest rate that despite the recent dip is still less than half of the current rates. Besides, she added, the homes she has seen on the market are so unremarkable that it doesn’t seem worth walking away from a stream of income.
“I’m part of the problem — and the solution,” she said. “I don’t want to give up my inventory until I see other inventory available.”
After three years of rapid price increases during the pandemic, the housing market is experiencing what economists are calling “a correction.” Monthly sales have fallen. Construction activity has slowed, and home builders are offering steep discounts and other concessions to attract buyers.
As mortgage rates edge down slightly from the 20-year high of late last year, homebuilders and real estate agents both report a thaw in sales and buyer interest. But economists such as Hepp are still predicting a much slower year.
On the surface, lower home prices would seem to have created the first buyers market since the recovery from the housing bust and Great Recession began in earnest a decade ago. Yet, for many would-be homeowners, the combination of two years of price run-ups and significantly higher mortgage rates has left homes just as expensive as they ever were — assuming they can find a home that lies somewhere at the intersection of what they want and what they can afford, which many still can’t.
This problem revolves around the fact that anyone who already owns a piece of real estate has very little reason to sell it right now. Homeowners can charge high rent, their locked-in borrowing costs are low ,and equivalent properties are hard to find. Even people who need to move — whether to find more space or to relocate for a job — don’t necessarily have to sell: The strong rental market means they can hold out if they don’t get the price they want, and it’s hard to imagine that changing until there’s enough housing to satisfy demand.
“Normally, you would expect inventory to start picking up in a downturn,” said Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, an online brokerage. This time around, that’s not happening: Demand for housing has stayed strong, he said. But hardly anyone wants to sell.
The biggest reason there aren’t enough homes to buy is that there aren’t enough houses, period. That shortage, which has persisted for decades and was exacerbated by the building slump after the Great Recession, is the root cause of steadily rising rents and home prices. And it’s especially acute in “starter homes,” the smaller, moderately priced houses that allow families to begin building equity.
But there are also factors that are specific to this unusual economic moment that limit the number of homes for sale. One is the role of investors, who swooped in to buy homes in the wake of the last housing downturn and now own a significant share of single-family homes, especially in Sun Belt cities such as Atlanta and Phoenix — and who have little incentive to sell in a falling market. An even bigger factor is interest rates: Anyone who bought or refinanced a home in the decade from 2011 to 2021 did so in an environment of historically low interest rates, sometimes below 3%. Because most U.S. homes are bought using 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages, those rates are locked in for decades.
Existing homeowners are “sitting pretty,” said Rick Palacios Jr., director of research for John Burns Real Estate Consulting. They have no financial incentive to sell — after all, high rents mean they can easily find a tenant to cover their costs and then some.
“The lock-in effect is going to have some unintended consequences that we didn’t really envision,” Palacios said.
Doug Brien was part of the wave of new buyers who in the years after the housing bust built rental empires by scooping up tens of thousands of homes when prices were still depressed. His company, Waypoint Homes, is one of several large investors such as Invitation Homes and American Homes 4 Rent that have consolidated the single-family rental business, which until the Great Recession was, for the most part, limited to investors with a handful of properties.
Brien, a retired NFL kicker, left Waypoint in 2016 and is now the CEO of Mynd, an investment management company that pitches itself as a way for investors to buy and operate rental properties without having to deal with finding tenants or handling repairs.
“We’re unlocking this asset class for others,” Brien said.
Carly Lovrien, a self-employed accountant who lives in Melissa, Texas, is one. Lovrien and her husband have two rental homes they manage through Mynd — investments that she said they would never had bought if they had had to run the business themselves.
“We loved the idea of investing in real estate,” she said. “But when it came to how to find renters, how to manage renters, advertising and, God forbid, if we had to have any kind of eviction or anything like that — that was out of our realm of expertise.”
By making it much easier to rent homes without having to manage them, companies have also made it easier for homeowners to not sell. Over the past year, Brien said, Mynd has had inquiries from dissatisfied home sellers — people who want to sell but can’t get their price — almost double.
But some economists say that investors — both large institutional investors such as Waypoint and small ones using platforms such as Mynd — are having another, subtler effect on the housing market, helping to nudge more Americans toward renting rather than buying.
Jeffrey DiPallo, a software developer in Longmont, Colorado, spent the last three months of 2022 looking to buy a house or townhome in the range of $500,000 to $550,000. Prices had dipped and the market wasn’t as frothy as it was, but the options remained underwhelming for what he wanted: The homes he saw were either too worn down, on too busy of a street or way out of town in a packed subdivision he didn’t want to live in.
Those are necessary compromises in a market where demand remains high and the supply of homes for sale remains low. With the lease up on his three-bedroom rental, the question DiPallo was facing was whether the trade-offs of owning were too great. In February, he got a place: a new three-bedroom home, where he signed a new lease.
“I’ve thought about just staying a renter,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.