Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher
 

Talk to Teens about College – and Housing – Before it’s Too Late

If you thought prospecting move-up buyers was hard, then you’ll be amazed at why you should start prospecting your future first-time buyers before they’re even out of high school.

In 1973, in-state public school college tuition was about $2000 a year; private college about $9,900. In 1987, public college reached $2700 a year, private about $13,000. By 1997, public college tuitions were rising so fast, that 1 in 5 college graduates told the National Loan Survey that their graduation-debts would cause them to delay having children, getting married and possibly other major life steps. In 2012, the cost to attend Tufts University will be over $51,000 per year, according to the College Board’s Net Price Calculator.

You get the point.

Becoming a college graduate these days will easily run up fifty to a hundred thousand dollars in debt for kids before they even hit the workforce. College aid and government grants won’t offset it all; much will be paid for by good old fashioned personal debt . Don’t expect mommy and daddy to tap into the Bank of Housing Equity any more, either: the housing ATM had been raided already and is permanently closed.

That’s why it’s important to realize so many people in their twenties won’t be buying a home any time soon. Possibly, up to two decades.

According to the Wall Street Journal, housing is off the table for recent college grads, along with marriage and kids:

Between the ages of 18 and 22, Jodi Romine took out $74,000 in student loans to help finance her business-management degree at Kent State University in Ohio. What seemed like a good investment will delay her career, her marriage and decision to have children….. A recent survey by the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys says members are seeing a big increase in people whose student loans are forcing them to delay major purchases or starting families.

It’s not news, really. In fact, we’ve been reporting on it for quite some time. But what can you do about it, especially if you sell an alternate use of that $50,000 of equity and debt?

Such as buying a house.

That’s why your next target prospecting audience needs to include teenagers. And not just their parents. Real estate agents (and luxury goods sellers) need to get a jump start on preparing the next generation of consumers for their products and services. They need to start establishing the value proposition clearly, frequently and directly – long, long before their customer will ever be ready to buy.

And they need to stop simply relying upon “general cultural trends” that say home ownership is still “important” to young people, because, if we look at other trends, like young people’s willingness to live at home until their thirties, this “importance” isn’t so very.

The bottom line is simple: if real estate brokers don’t start talking to teenagers and parents long before they consume the family savings (and accrue historic levels of debt), then the pool of first-time home buyers will run very low over the next decade. Or dry up completely, as renting and living at home creates an entirely new acceptable housing regime. Over-estimating the importance of the first-time buyer isn’t hard: They have accounted for 1-in-3 buyers of homes for nearly forty years. (During the recent boom, they accounted for 1 in 2.) That’s nearly 1.5 million out of the historical average of 4 million transactions that occur annually.

Even a small drop – say, 25% – would cut more than 375,000 sales from the pipeline. Considering the average agent only does about 6 deals a year, such a drop could easily eliminate 63,000 jobs from the housing industry.

Traditional real estate marketing has made two major mistakes: First, it has treated real estate as an “investment” rather than a valuable consumption: This has positioned real estate like stocks, that “go up and g down” with market cycles. Consumers are very wary of those things today: and will be for quite some time as the aftershocks of the Great Recession persist in their minds for years. It has also positioned housing as a weak investment against the alternative education which most people believe far more valuable to their own (and children’s) lives. Marketed as an investment, most people fail to see the bigger picture: which is why many brokers have shifted to the emotional side of owning a home in their messaging. By focusing consumers’ attention on the enjoyment of the product, and what it makes possible for their lives, not its investment qualifications, they can address the value proposition.

It’s a start. But probably not enough.

The other mistake is that most agents only know how to market inventory rather than value. The majority of every dollar spent in real estate advertising is on something physical: a location, price and bathroom. They rarely focus on selling the invisible – the important values to be gained through home ownership. Trust me: the words charming and secluded don’t do it. Importantly, the common treatment of the cost- aspect of housing is constrained to the affordability argument against rentals.

Rather than home ownership affords someone over their lifetime; which is the argument that college education makes.

This leaves a gap – and an opportunity – for very smart real estate pros to make a play for future market share. That play is to position housing as an alternate use of scarce resources: mom and dad’s remaining home equity and Junior’s yet-unblemished credit score. Think of this as the housing-industry equivalent of the “alternate use” theory of pricing. If you have $5, you can buy a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas. You decide upon the perceived benefits the purchase will bring you. If you’re thirsty, you buy the milk; if you need to go to the hospital, you buy gas. This same theory works in marketing your next generation of customers.

To create future housing markets, brokers must specifically start talking to kids and parents about their financial plans – especially on education – long before they start borrowing. It’s about inserting housing – and everything that housing makes possible, such as families and jobs and so on – into the college planning process. No, scratch that: let’s not call it college planning at all. Let’s call it life planning. That’s better! Here’s the template:

If you want to get married in your twenties, have kids before 40 and not live from check-to-check in constant fear of job loss with no savings, then perhaps investing equally in housing and education would be a good plan.

Yes. That’s the message.

But is anyone saying it? And if they are, is it being said before it’s too late? And if it’s being said, is it communicated in video form, promoted by text and Twitter, to a Justin Bieber audience with the attention span of a fly? Probably not. And I have a feeling the classic postcard and e-newsletter campaign isn’t exactly doing the trick.

Certainly, there remain many demographic reasons why the first-time home buyer pool may drain. Kids who expect to live longer, don’t mind living in mom’s cellar until they are thirty, and can get government health care until 27 seem very inclined to stay in school longer than ever. But the truth is, they are consuming their future at an alarming rate. Forty years of special tax treatment for housing equity (and sales) has caused another bubble to occur: College tuition inflation rates outpaced both CPI inflation and wage inflation for decades. We can’t turn back the clock. But we can prime the pumps for the future.

That means talking to kids today, before they blow a two-decade hole in their purchasing power.

This isn’t to say real estate professional should discourage kids from getting a college education. On the contrary: It means playing an active role in their financial education.  Any industry who needs a quality-credit-scored not-overly-indebted customer to buy their goods and services in the future should play an active role in preparing customers to be capable of making that purchase.

Especially when kids can actually get government loans for college, but they can’t get bank loans to buy a house.

It opens up a wide variety of possibilites for engaging customers in discussions of home ownership years before they might actually be ready to buy. Imagine a customer for life strategy that actually starts four to seven years before the customer is able to make a purchase. Sounds odd, but isn’t that what Disney World does with kids, starting as toddlers, preparing them to take their children to the dream park sometime far, far into the future?

Peter Drucker once said that the purpose of business was to create a customer. If you can understand what he meant, you’ll see that investing in your future customer must start years ahead, especially when their resources will be far more limited to purchase your product as compared to others, than ever before.