As co-host of HGTV's Real Estate Intervention show, Mike Aubrey offers reality checks to homeowners having trouble selling. As he says on one episode set in Fells Point, people "need to be reactive to this declining real estate market that we're in."
Touring the competition and re-evaluating whether your asking price is anywhere near what buyers would pay -- a far cry from all the house-flipper programming of the bubble days.
Aubrey, a North Potomac real estate agent who got into the business in 2002, chatted with me recently about what he's seeing in the market these days.
Q. You're based in the Washington suburbs. Do you work in Baltimore at all?
Because of the work that I do on Real Estate Intervention, I end up in Baltimore a lot. We do a lot of shows in Baltimore. That is probably because, sort of the format of this show, at least the first two seasons of the show, has been a little bit dark, and things have been tougher in Baltimore than they’ve been in the D.C. area.
I think that Baltimore City was ... gentrifying a lot of the areas inside the city during the real estate boom, [neighborhoods] that never necessarily got to complete that gentrification. And so those areas that were in transition are the areas I think really got stymied as we saw the market fall off. Places that I think, had the market not turned in Baltimore, would ... be flourishing right now.
Everybody knows that Federal Hill ... already 'happened.' But a lot of the areas that are ancillary to Federal Hill, … those places really started to pick up a little bit but [they] never got to happen completely. They just got stuck in time. Those are the areas that have been the toughest to recover as we’ve gone through this process. ...
Let me go macro on you for a second. Let’s talk about the United States, and I think you can apply the same concept to Baltimore. I hate to be simplistic, but those areas that rose the furthest had the farthest to fall. Those areas you didn’t see a ton of difference in, … I think they’re the guy who’s out in Lincoln, Neb. right now who’s been living in his house for 10 years and things have not changed a great deal for that guy during the boom or during the fall. ...
As places went up, as people couldn’t afford to be in certain places, tertiary markets exploded. … Frederick exploded, and Frederick is tumbleweeds right now, you couldn’t give a house away in Frederick right now. Washington County’s pretty bad, too. We actually did a show out in Washington County which has not aired yet in Season Two, and those folks sort of made that classic mistake of, ‘We want a monster house, 6,000 square feet, … so we’re going to build it out here.' And they missed the boat, definitely. They built it purely as an investment.
Q. On that note, what interventions do you think sellers in Maryland need?
This is a very interesting time in real estate. It is a very transitioning time. And the beauty of doing an interview as opposed to doing a television show is that I can kind of give you my ideas in real time as opposed to being two or three months behind the eight ball. That’s the tough thing about my show -- it’s a little bit behind by the time it airs. …
I think what we’re going to see is a W-shaped recovery. I see a lot of areas on the upswing right now, and I see that as being the middle part of that W.
Mortgage rates are still very low, and part of the reason they remained very low is because the largest buyer of mortgage-backed securities was the government in 2009. That’s going to change. … When you’ve got normal buyers, … they’re not going to do it for the margins the government was. That’s going to drive interest rates up.
Two, I think the home buyer tax credit, … another synthetic driving force in the market right now that only applies to contracts written before April 30 , … that’s going to go away. The middle part of that W is being driven by that as well.
Finally, I think the other huge factor, nobody really knows what the impact will be, but I think everybody thinks it will be a negative impact, is the concept of the shadow inventory out there. ... The thing lenders want to do most in the world is give people money to buy houses. The thing they want to do least in the world is own houses. When they [put more of their foreclosure inventory on the market], … we’re going to see the declining part of that W.
Right now we’re on the upswing on the middle part of that W. These three things, the shadow inventory, the home buyer tax credit and rising mortgage rates, we’re going to hit that middle point on the W and start going down again. ...
For sellers in Maryland and sellers in Baltimore City, if you’re looking to sell your house, I think you have a window right now that’s in Q1 of 2010 and the beginning part of Q2 2010, and I think things are going to get worse after that. My advice to sellers is be aggressive.
Q. In what ways?
Price your house right. Every property, whether you’re in Baltimore City or you’re in Washington, D.C., every property in my opinion has to have two things to sell in a tough marketplace: It has to be priced right and it has to look good. ...
If you’re a seller in this marketplace, you need to get great advice in terms of your pricing strategy and get ahead of the market rather than chasing the market.
I still work, I still sell houses -- I’m not just like a TV guy. I think this concept of staging a house and putting a little effort into staging a house makes a difference. As a seller, you have one opportunity to … get somebody’s interest.
Most people are emotional buyers. It’s an impulse issue. You walk in, you love it, you want it.
Q. So you don't think focusing on price and not worrying about condition is a good idea for sellers? Or vice versa?
I have seen houses that are priced extraordinarily well but look horrible, [and] they still sit, and when they do get contracts, somebody wants to get their shirt in price. On the flip side, I have seen people who have absolutely over-upgraded their property, … and the place is absolutely spectacular, it’s perfect, but because it’s overpriced, it also sits. So no, I don’t think one is more important than the other. I think they’re equally important in a tough marketplace.
Q. What’s your advice for people who can’t sell in the first upswing of the W?
One thing is, if you don’t have to move, stay in the house. Even in my regular business, not on TV, with people I talk to now, the first thing I want to know is, why do you want to move and what kind of financial impact is your move going to have? For some people, they take a hit on the mouth for what they’re selling, but what they’re buying, they’re buying for so much less that it makes financial sense to them.
I’m not saying don’t sell. … I’m thinking, though, if somebody doesn’t sell and we are on the downward side of that W, at minimum, if they’re able to wait until we’re on that final upswing of that W, which I think may be as far out as 2011, I think if they can hold out until then, it’s going to minimize their bleeding a little bit.
Q. Why do sellers need interventions four years into a down market?
You know, people’s homes are very personal to them. And I will say this to you as a member of the media that covers real estate and me as a real estate agent and on this show, what seems so clearly evident to us is maybe not as evident to people out there. I’ve gone through some catharsis through this in the number of people I’ve gotten to meet, … where I was originally saying to myself, ‘It’s impossible that people just haven’t realized this,’ to the point that I believe … there are tons of people out there who aren’t even anecdotally aware of the fact that we’re in the middle of this awful real estate crisis. Honestly. ...
I also think information for people often comes not through qualified sources like talking to a Realtor or something like that, but really comes through neighborhood chatter. ... ‘Yeah, we know the real estate market’s bad, but it hasn’t affected us as bad.’ People have this mass denial in a local area that continues to drive the idea that there needs to be interventions done, not just on my show but every day with people in the trenches, selling these houses, coming in and saying things that knock [homeowners] out of their shoes.
This is going to sound a little bit crass and I don’t mean it in a crass way, but one of the first things I try to get people to realize is, their situation -- whether they’re underwater or not, whether they have any money to bring to the table, if it’s a married couple and they’re getting ready to have another child and they need the space -- none of that has any impact on the buyer. That is the first and biggest mistake that most sellers make, assuming their personal situation has some sort of impact on the buyer and the marketplace. It has no impact at all. Buyers out there, they want a deal. Can you blame them?
After 2004 and 2005, the way buyers were getting gouged, this is some sort of marketplace karma, right?
Q. Do you think home buyers need any inventions?
I do, actually. Funny you’ve said that. ... Sometimes I think the media likes to make the news as much as they report the news, and the idea that the market is absolutely in the toilet is a sensational idea and it makes a lot of headlines … and the truth of the matter is, we are seeing recovery in a lot of areas. And because we’re seeing recovery in a lot of areas, one of the things I’m having to do [is explain this to buyers]. …
People come in with these arbitrary ideas: 'I want to get 20 percent off the listing price of a house' or 'I want to get 15 percent off the listing price of a house.' It is truly arbitrary. For those sellers that have a property that looks good and is priced right, those are going to be the houses buyers are interested in. … You’re not always able to go in and do that. Can you do that with the stuff that doesn’t look good or has some problems? Yeah, you can. But can you make it happen on the stuff that doesn’t have problems, that are attractive to other buyers? No, you can’t.
Q. Any other thoughts about the market?
As much as ... people think I’m just a dark guy and a negative guy, I’m not. And here’s what I can tell you: The market will come back. There’s no doubt in my mind, whether in Kalamazoo or Baltimore City, the market will come back.
It will get better. There’s no doubt. It’s one of the great engines that drives the United States economy, and things are going to come back around. If people can hold on and remain vigilant, what they're going to see is property values begin to stabilize. And real estate will be a good investment.
What it comes down to is owning a property for a protracted period of time, rather than like owning a share of Google.