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Keepin' It Real Estate: Buyers' Market? Beware


Getting to the "bottom" of housing.

Is it a buyer's market?

Ask most real-estate professionals the above question, and the response will almost certainly be an emphatic "Yes!"

After all, they quickly explain, inventory levels are at all-time highs, sellers are desperate to get out from under their rapidly depreciating homes, and mortgage rates are at historic lows. What more could buyers ask for?

How about not losing their shirts, for starters.

The traditional definition of a buyer's market is one where supply outstrips demand, pushing down prices: Buyers have the upper hand. As the bull market begins to wane, however, buyers lose their enthusiasm and become concerned about price. The market cools down and buyers shy away, forcing sellers to make concessions and lower prices. This, in turn, creates an environment where buyers can shop around, be picky, and patiently waiting for their dream house to come on the market.

As demand returns, sellers start upping their list prices, refusing to pay for closing costs and holding out for a better offer. Buyers, fearful they might miss out on the next boom, bid up asking prices and ask for fewer concessions. Now that sellers have the upper hand, the market favors sellers as prices move upward. Such is the cyclical nature of real estate.

This story has played out for decades as real estate plodded along, homebuilders like DR Horton (DHI), KB Homes (KBH) and Toll Brothers (TOL) supplied the market with new construction and home prices marched steadily upward, outpacing inflation by the narrowest of margins. A little more than 10 years ago, however, that relationship started to come unglued.

The recent housing bubble turned the prevailing view of real estate on its head. Homes, long viewed as the most stable of all assets, became a speculative tool for even the most unsophisticated investor. The mania, fueled by lax monetary policy and Wall Street alchemy, helped contributed to the financial crisis currently gripping our country. As property values have careened back to earth, real estate assets of all kinds have become toxic.

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