The Home Buyer’s Quandary: Nobody’s Selling | Kanebridge News
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The Home Buyer’s Quandary: Nobody’s Selling

Many are ready to move but don’t want to lose the low-rate mortgages they locked in a few years ago, crimping the supply of homes and keeping prices high

Thu, May 11, 2023 8:31amGrey Clock 7 min

Many Americans who want to move are trapped in their homes—locked in by low interest rates they can’t afford to give up.

These “golden handcuffs” are keeping the supply of homes for sale unusually low and making the market more competitive and pricey than some forecasters expected.

The reluctance of homeowners to sell differentiates the current housing market from past downturns and could keep home prices from falling significantly on a national basis, economists say. This could dull the Federal Reserve’s efforts to slow inflation by cooling the economy.

Emily and Isaac Naatz of Cottage Grove, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul, had a baby last year and want a bigger place. They have lived for more than four years in their two-bedroom townhouse, and they now want a three- or four-bedroom house with a yard and space for a home office. “You get four people in here…and it feels like a large crowd,” Mr. Naatz said.

But they locked in a 30-year fixed mortgage rate of 3.4% in 2021—and don’t want to give that up to take on a new mortgage with a rate about 3 percentage points higher, especially when home prices in their area haven’t come down much.

The type of home they would want to buy would cost them about $1,100 a month more than they currently pay, Mr. Naatz said. “I don’t feel comfortable paying what I still think is an inflated price for a home, and on top of it paying twice the interest rate,” he said.

As of March 31, nearly two-thirds of primary mortgages had an interest rate below 4%, according to mortgage-data firm Black Knight. About 73% of primary mortgages have fixed rates for 30 years, Black Knight data show. The average rate for a new 30-year fixed mortgage was 6.39% in the week ended May 4, according to Freddie Mac.

The mortgage-rate factor is leaving some people in houses that aren’t a good fit, whether it’s a growing family without enough bedrooms or ageing homeowners with too much space, or dissuading people from relocating for jobs or other opportunities. Some people that wanted to sell in 2022 or 2023 shelved their plans.

As current homeowners stay put, “the movement up the ladder is sort of grinding to a halt,” said Sam Khater, chief economist at Freddie Mac. “It’s getting much harder for first-time home buyers to jump into the market because of the lack of supply.”

Half the listings

In April, there were about half as many homes for sale as in April 2019, though there were more listings than in April 2022, when they were near record lows, according to

The number of homes newly listed on the market in April fell about 21% from a year earlier, an indication that sellers are holding back even during the normally busy spring home-buying season.

The constrained inventory is a key reason why home prices haven’t fallen much, even though higher mortgage rates have pushed many buyers to the sidelines.

The median existing-home sale price in March slid 0.9% from a year earlier, according to the National Association of Realtors. Existing-home sales, meanwhile, fell 22% in March from a year earlier.

It’s a “unique market condition,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist. “Sales are down and even prices are down in some areas, yet from a buyer’s perspective it’s hard to get that home, because they are competing with other buyers.”

Frenzied bidding wars are still common in parts of the country, especially for moderately priced homes that appeal to first-time home buyers. In Clifton, N.J., a New York City suburb, a two-family house that listed for $449,000 in early April received 120 offers in six days, said Mahmoud Ijbara, the real-estate agent who listed it. The house is under contract for about $150,000 over the asking price, he said.

“The low inventory is what’s driving the prices up,” he said. “A lot of buyers are really panicking right now.”

A healthy housing market has between four and six months of supply at current sales rates, economists say. The existing-home market, which makes up most of the housing market, hit a record low 1.6 months’ supply in January 2022 and stood at 2.6 months’ supply in March of this year, according to NAR. The smaller new-home market is more amply supplied, at a seasonally adjusted 7.6 months in March, according to the Commerce Department.

The shortage of supply in the housing market has been a growing issue for years. Following the subprime-mortgage crisis, many builders went out of business and others sharply cut back on spending and new construction.

Mr. Naatz worked while his daughter played nearby. They want to sell and move to a bigger home but don’t want to give up their current low-rate mortgage. TIM GRUBER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (3)

The problem worsened starting in 2020, when record-low mortgage rates and a pandemic-driven increase in remote work prompted buyers to rush into the market and snap up primary homes, vacation homes and investment properties. Home builders ramped up construction but struggled to meet demand due to volatile material costs, labor shortages and supply-chain issues.

That sales boom, along with a huge wave of homeowners who refinanced their mortgages, locked in millions of homeowners to low-rate, long-term loans. Among people planning to sell their homes and buy new ones in the next 12 months, about 56% plan to wait for rates to decline, according to a survey conducted in February. (News Corp, parent of The Wall Street Journal, operates

The Fed has been working to slow inflation. It raised its benchmark federal-funds rate last week for the 10th time since the start of 2022 but signalled it might be done raising rates for now.

Housing is one of the most rate-sensitive economic sectors, and the housing-market slowdown since early 2022 has been one of the main ways that the Fed’s actions have directly affected consumers.

Even some people who can accept higher mortgage rates are staying put because they are struggling to find something to buy. Julie and Aidan Booth expected to live in their three-bedroom home in East Rutherford, N.J., for about five years when they bought it in late 2019. Since then, they’ve had a second child and both switched to fully remote and hybrid working schedules, prompting them to want more space sooner than they expected.

The family started house hunting at the start of the year. They would be able to afford a higher mortgage rate, Mrs. Booth said, but they are stymied by the lack of supply.

“The last three weeks, there has been nothing new in our town” that met their criteria, she said. “There’s just no inventory.”

Opening for builders

The housing scarcity is good news for home builders, who struggled to find customers for much of 2022 with mortgage rates rising but reported stronger-than-expected demand in the first quarter. Newly built homes made up about one-third of total single-family homes for sale in March, up from a historical norm of 10% to 20%.

“If somebody does want a home at [either higher or lower price points], new construction is where they can find it right now,” said Jessica Hansen, vice president of investor relations and communications at D.R. Horton, the biggest home builder by volume, in an April earnings call.

The current market could also be a boon to remodelling companies. Rachael and Aaron Wyley, who have owned their Sacramento, Calif., house for almost 10 years, have considered moving to another house with space for Mrs. Wyley’s mother. But prices were either too high or mortgage rates too steep. Instead, they are saving up to remodel to add an in-law unit.

“We would break down the math of it and look at what we would put down, on top of how much we would get from the house selling,” Mr. Wyley said. “We’d have enough to make the monthly payments but not much else.”

There will always be homeowners who have to move due to life events like death, divorce or job relocations, and others who don’t view current mortgage rates as an obstacle. Many retirees and remote workers opt to move to cheaper housing markets, where lower prices can offset the effect of higher rates. About 38% of owner-occupied housing units have no mortgage, according to Census Bureau data. And about 27% of March existing-home sales were purchased in cash, according to NAR.

Many homeowners who have lived in their houses for years have also built up equity they can use toward down payments on their next homes, reducing the size of their loans. U.S. homeowners had $270,000 more equity on average in the fourth quarter of 2022 than they did at the start of the pandemic, according to CoreLogic.

How long the mortgage rate lock-in effect will last is hard for economists to say. Mortgage rates have never climbed as quickly as they did in 2022.

As the gap widens between homeowners’ existing mortgage rates and the prevailing rate, moving slows down, according to a March working paper by Julia Fonseca at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Lu Liu at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The paper also found homeowners with low locked-in mortgage rates are less likely to relocate for higher-paying jobs.

Ryan and Megan Carrillo bought their first home in Phoenix in 2020 for $320,000, locking in a 2.75% fixed mortgage rate for 30 years.

Last year, after Mr. Carrillo got a higher-paying job, they wanted to upgrade to a nicer house in the $600,000 to $700,000 price range. When they started looking in January 2022, they planned to pay about $3,000 a month for a new house, but they backed out of the market after their expected payments ballooned to more than $4,000 by September.

The Carrillos now plan to stay in their house for about five more years and then turn it into a rental property when they move out of state.

“I’d love to keep it forever and not sell it,” Mr. Carrillo said. His ultra low mortgage rate, he added, is “too good to give up.”


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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

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“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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