A wave of pandemic-induced uncertainty has thrown a pall over America’s economic performance, yet one sector remains a defiant shade of rose against a generally dark background. Why are home sales rebounding so quickly, with some locations reporting a return to the days of bidding wars? Is this a meaningful and lasting trend or simply a function of limited data from which to draw conclusions? “I think everyone in the industry is asking themselves what the new normal will be after such a cataclysmic event,” says Professor Steven Teitelbaum, who teaches Kogod’s Real Estate Development class and works in transit-oriented development and smart growth.
At the beginning of the pandemic in March, home sales fell by 8.5 percent as potential buyers lost their jobs, contended with economic uncertainty, or simply avoided moving due to health concerns. Existing home sales in April fell by almost 18 percent, but prices rose 7.4 percent compared to a year ago.
What could explain why basic supply-and-demand principles don’t seem to apply here? A huge drop in demand should put downward pressure on prices as the market sways in the buyers’ favor. But in this case, while demand dropped, so did supply. Sellers withdrew from the market for the same reasons that buyers did. New home listings fell dramatically after the stay-at-home orders, with estimates ranging from 29 percent to higher than 50 percent.
The drops in supply and demand were generally proportional to each other, but the lower number of transactions made it more difficult to analyze how prices moved in aggregate. “Data is so scarce that one blip sends things teetering toward one end or the other. It is hard to come by meaningful averages,” explains Teitelbaum.
Limited housing supply is likely to be a more prominent issue in certain areas. The pandemic has also affected new build construction. Professor Kim Luchtenberg, professor of finance and real estate, says, “The DC area will remain relatively sheltered from a real estate sector downturn because housing is in such limited supply. This will keep prices high, so buyers will not see much change.”
The number of homes listed for sale in the DC metro area dropped more than 37 percent compared to April 2019, resulting in the lowest inventory in the past 10 years.
A decrease in overall home sales has a number of effects. Home sales generate much spin-off economic activity. Local governments rely on revenue from deed transfer taxes to fund public services. Occupations like real estate agents, home inspectors, and other agents lose streams of income, as do support services like moving companies, furniture and appliance stores, landscapers, and maintenance technicians.
From a social perspective, people often buy homes when relocating for work, having children, getting married, or downsizing for retirement. An economic downtown that makes homeownership inaccessible may delay many of these milestones. For example, the Great Recession caused delayed household formation among young adults.
A much more grave concern is what will happen to the homeowners affected by the general economic downturn. “Foreclosures and mortgage defaults are sure to happen once the protection period ends,” says Luchtenberg. No one is sure how this will affect the real estate industry or the economy as a whole.
With so much turmoil in the stock markets and retail and hospitality real estate markets, plus general economic uncertainty, are investors attracted to the seemingly untouchable residential real estate sector? Luchtenberg and Teitelbaum concur that this trend is afoot, but in an unusual permutation—investment in single-family home rentals. This was the case immediately following the 2008 collapse, and currently, these kinds of rentals are one of the fastest-growing investment vehicles both for large corporations and individual investors. “The second-best option to owning a home is renting a single-family unit. Investors see that,” says Teitelbaum. Luchtenberg is currently writing a research paper on this phenomenon as well.
While understanding the “new normal” seems like an impossible proposition, in the DC area, at least, the old normal of a robust residential real estate market remains.