The real estate market is very different from the traded assets markets in (at least) one important way. When the stock market rises and falls, it generally rises and falls for everyone in the same way.
Except for the fraction of folks who day trade (joyously buying low when everyone else is losing their heads from the Dow’s descent), and options traders, who actually make money when others lose it, the average investor is positioned the same as their fellow investors.
This is not so in real estate. When things are great for buyers, they’re not so great for sellers. Renters and landlords’ interests are generally also at odds. But there is one spot in the matrix of real estate experiences we all share: moving.
Moving is a universal experience. It is also universally ranked as one of the most stressful experiences we humans go through, or put ourselves through, as the case may be. I once read that only the death of a family member, divorce, job loss and buying a home rank higher on the list of modern human stressors.
Perhaps it’s not coincidental that each of the four greater stressors often creates the need for a home move, exponentially increasing the stress.
In itself, the abrupt, constant immersion in an entirely new physical environment — for better or for worse — is profound, and can be profoundly disorienting.
On top of that, the physical disruption of moving is completely and inextricably intertwined with the stress of the life changes that necessitate, or are necessitated by, the move: from a job relocation to children changing schools.
On today’s market, moving is even more stressful than normal for many, many people. Many feel forced to move by their circumstances — from foreclosure, to a job loss, to a short sale. Money stresses that snowball into divorce also precipitate a move.
Others feel trapped and unable to move when they wish they could because they can’t sell or can’t afford to retire as planned.
Of course, there are many who are moving because they are buying a home or a bigger home, or moving to a better area, or executing that spatial downsizing/lifestyle upgrade they’ve craved for years — moving to the city from the suburbs, for example.
Even for these whose move is due to life changes most would call positive, it can still be fraught with the stresses and uncertainty of any massive life transition — the ever-present, nagging internal inquisition: Am I sure I’m doing the right thing? This is especially so when a home purchase or sale is involved.
I’ve had that experience myself — both while moving "up" and downsizing to a better neighborhood, with every single sensation involved in the move, from the screeching rip of the packing tape to the final drive away from my familiar home and street.
I’ve tortured myself with an endless variety of torturous second-guesses: "Did I leave money on the table?" "Should I have held out for more/paid less?" "What on earth am I getting myself into?" "Will I be happy in this bigger/smaller place?"
Despite the stress, more and more Americans are making a move. In May, the Census reported that the number of Americans moving increased from 11.9 percent in 2008 — a record low in the six decades the Census has tracked this number — to 12.5 percent in 2009.
That means 37.1 million Americans moved in 2009, and the vast majority of them were seeking a lifestyle upgrade.
Nearly 46 percent of movers cited their desire to live in a better neighborhood as their motivation for moving; family reasons (26 percent) and job reasons (18 percent) were the next two most common reasons for moving. The Census also tracked how many renters, as compared to homeowners, made a move in 2009.
Renters moved at about five times the rate of homeowners, with roughly 29 percent of renters moving in 2009.
I read this and wondered how many of these renters had been homeowners before their move, and how did this rate of homeowners moving from their own home to a rental home compare with years past?
It also made me think: How many renters were moving because of landlord foreclosures, rental rates rising or job losses that necessitated a cheaper place to live? And vice versa — how many were moving into homes they’d been able to buy because of the decline in home prices? And what does "job reasons" mean, anyway? Did these folks lose their jobs, get new jobs, or have to move to get a job?
This, the only recent hard data I could find on Americans moving house, made me crave to know the emotional and psychological nuances underlying the generic boxes on the "why are you moving" questionnaire.
After a couple of years of reading so many foreclosure and job loss-related requests for real estate solutions, and knowing how stressful moving can be even in the best-case scenario, this data made me inwardly root for these anonymous millions to experience their house moves as a positive transformation — whether it be a step up to long-dreamed-for home of their own, a better neighborhood or schools for the kids, or a clean slate for reinvention and life redesign after losing their job, their home, their marriage or a loved one.
A few years ago, film director Michael Moore released a critique of the American health care system — a film called "Sicko."
Whether or not you agree with the film’s message, there are certainly a number of poignant scenes, from 9/11 first responders who had lost everything due to illnesses they picked up at Ground Zero, to Canadian tourists refusing, eyes wide and heads shaking, to cross over the U.S. border out of the fear of what would happen (or not), medically speaking, if they had an accident while on U.S. soil.
My real estate-addled mind recalls vividly a scene where a Frenchwoman explains that French employers are mandated by the government to offer workers time off not just to recover from illness and give birth, but also to move house. Softhearted? Perhaps.
But maybe the universal experience of moving house — and all the human drama, distress, transformation and joy that is bound up with it — warrants a little human tenderness.