According to everyone with a microphone, now’s the best time to buy a home in decades. The recession has pushed home prices and mortgage interest rates so low that affordability has never been better. We’ll even throw in a few free Bernanke Bucks to help you cover closing and commission costs, and rebate you the remaining dollars even if you didn’t pay them in taxes. Between all the rebates, freebies, price reductions and home inventory options, doesn’t it seem strange that the market isn’t roaring? Sure, there’s a bit of unemployment rising here and there, but 9 out of 10 Americans still have jobs. So why are consumer still struggling to take advantage of the sales of the century?
Maybe it’s because they’re still confused. Not about mortgage rates or falling home prices: they get that stuff. Even short-term consumers like Gen Y understands the growth potential of investing in real estate today, even if the market falls further in the short term. For once, it’s not the raw market “numbers” that are holding back consumers. But it’s something real, nonetheless.
First, let’s ask who the key consumers are in today’s marketplace. Last year 50% of all deals in America were to first-time home buyers. That puts the market squarely in Gen X and Gen Y territory. Baby Boomers only constituted a fifth of the buyers, and Gen X’ers prefer new construction to their parents’ homes anyway. What could it be, then, that’s holding back the X/Y consumer, considering they’re also the ones holding onto their jobs best despite rising unemployment?
That factor is mythology. Not the kind that has Greek heroes beheading Gorgons, but the comfortable-cliche kind that often infects and paralyzes an industry.
The myth in question is that consumers know more about real estate today than ever before.
Really? I’m beginning to doubt it.
It’s certainly true that consumers know more about homes than every before. They can find inventory faster than the 50-something agent they have to beg to respond by email with the lock-box combination. But even if it’s a truism that Gen X and Gen Y’ers can access the housing inventory online faster than ever, just what do they know as a result of it? Pretty much nothing more than construction specifications, sprinkled with the barest minimum of photos and rarest of videos. How does this help Gen X or Gen Y tap into the greatest home sale of all time? Not too much, actually. Raw housing data alone doesn’t do much for preparing, evaluating and deciding which opportunities are best in the marketplace. So the myth that internet inventory somehow has helped consumers buy homes (more, better, faster, whatever) is revealed to be a myth. Even NAR research shows that internet-shopping consumers took longer to decide and buy (although they physically toured less homes) than offline consumers. Anybody who spends hours comparing airline prices for the best deal knows that more data doesn’t mean better or faster outcomes.
The myth is subtle and dangerous, but it’s nonetheless real. Access to housing information – inventory, articles, how-to guides and experts – is now available on every Gen Y first-time buyer’s smartphone. It’s the ultimate level of access to everything and anything you could ask, desire, wonder or need to know about real estate. Except this massive access-ability isn’t causing more Y’ers to buy. Instead, many are putting it off, renting in groups or simply staying at home longer. Just as the early Boomers finally cleared their cellars of their reluctant Gen X’ers, late Boomers find themselves tethered to their Gen Y children while housing opportunities pass them by.
The myth that the consumer has everything they need to make decisions and “jump into the market” is compounded by the subtle ways in which even raw market data is made more complex for consumers than it has to be. The accompanying graphic from Stuff That Happens made me think that even today, most real estate websites are a nightmare to navigate.
And it’s not just our websites that are hard to navigate. It’s the entire process – the real estate transaction, we call it – is a mess of confusion and complexity. Ever wonder why so many deals fall apart? More likely we should wonder in amazement that so many come together. Too much about how the real estate transaction works is still kept secret, mysterious, and dangerously unreliable.
Almost nothing about the real estate transaction that consumers experience today is a simple as using an Apple product. Nor is it as reliable, and predictable, as searching on Google. While previous generations of consumers may have understood – or at least grudgingly accepted – that buying a home was complicated, Gen X and Gen Y just won’t stand for it. It’s why Gen X invented Wikipedia and why Gen Y prefers to shop at places that don’t require you to “negotiate” the final price (think, Saturn).
The myth that’s holding back today’s real estate consumer is that we’ve given them access – fast, online, always – to stuff that matters, when in fact, it’s just the opposite that continues to be the case. If a consumer finds a home they like, all by themselves, online, it still takes hours for someone to respond to their email inquiry. After they list their home with an agent, the single most persistent complaint from home sellers today is that their agent is impossible to reach, and they don’t know where they stand on a convenient basis. We open the doors to potential buyers at Sunday open houses, except that Sundays are as inconvenient as our web search tools for busy Gen X and Gen Y’ers with overloaded weekend family schedules.
Over and over again, we continue to hide behind the curtain, like real estate wizards in a land long forgotten. What is most important to the consumer – the knowledge necessary to assess their options and make important decisions – still depends upon contact with a person. Yet our mythology that the consumer has more real estate information than ever before has caused us to think they have more of us than ever before.
And clearly they do not, because just as clearly, they are holding back from the marketplace.
It’s time for the real estate industry to come out from behind the curtain. And not just the small stuff, like offering easier access to inventory or cutesy checklists for buyers. It’s time for the entire transaction to be laid bare, from pre-start to chaotic-middle to successful-end. All of the players must be put on stage. Anyone with the ability to influence, and especially disrupt, a successful transaction has to be front-and-center before the consumer. They must be accountable. No more blaming some mysterious third party that still hides behind the curtain.
If Gen X and Gen Y are to follow the road back into the marketplace, it’s time for the industry to address the real estate process. Like McDonald’s once did for hamburgers, it’s time for REALTORS to focus on the process of selling homes. Otherwise consumers will remain confused, befuddled, and mostly afraid of the man behind the curtain. Unlike Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y won’t ever return to the days of “trust me” business relationships. For them, every transaction great and small must be open to inspection, scrutiny – and most of all, understanding.
It has already happened recently. When Cash for Clunkers offered free government money to buy cars, consumers jumped on it fast and furious. The amount offered wasn’t nearly as much as the first time home buyer tax credit, but consumers took immediate advantage of clunker-dollars because there are no curtains left in the car business. Every aspect of the car transaction is clearly understood today – from manufacturer rebates to in-house financing and clear-coating up-sells. Consumers know exactly how it’s going to happen when they hit the showroom, drive the car and then match wits with the sales manager. They know who to hold accountable if financing doesn’t come through; and later, when servicing the vehicle is required. After accessing the inventory “data” online, consumers can make rapid car purchase decisions because they can understand, anticipate and manage the car purchase transaction.
That still remains largely untrue for the real estate transaction today. It’s not enough to just provide data and blog entries; it’s time to open the books and let the consumer understand the process. It’s about transferring control from the practitioner to the consumer: and in an era of the best prices and financing, it’s about the only thing left that hasn’t happened to bring the consumer back to the table.
And until it does, the consumer will remain cautious, and the market flat.