When Jenna Watts moved to Savannah, GA, where her husband, Gil, was born and raised, she expected the couple would be renters for a year or two at the most. The couple began house hunting in October 2020, hoping to put down roots as they started a family.
Three and a half years later, they have seen over 50 homes and made offers on several. Each time, the couple lost to an all-cash buyer, often someone from the Northeast or the West Coast who recently sold a home and were looking to downsize Down South.
Jenna, 30, and Gil, 31, have a good budget for a home, but they can’t pay all cash. The months and months of disappointments have taken a toll.
Across the country, would-be homebuyers and their real estate agents—and even some on the seller’s side—describe a sense of deep fatigue with what feels like a merciless housing market. Things are so difficult that even though some people might keep searching, they’ve lost their enthusiasm, wondering whether this particular slice of the American dream might remain out of reach or—even if they do succeed—might require painful sacrifices or be a far cry from the ideal scenario they’d imagined.
“I’ve had to come to the realization that the home we buy isn’t going to be perfect,” Jenna says. “And that’s been hard.”
Stories like the one Jenna tells are all too common for frustrated buyers. Now things have become so challenging that even sellers are struggling, says Realtor.com® Chief Economist Danielle Hale. This means that rather than a buyer’s market or seller’s market, this is better characterized as a “nobody’s market.”
“It feels like the market isn’t working for anyone,” Hale says. “That probably contributes to everyone’s sense of fatigue.”
There is data to back up Hale’s sentiment. A monthly survey from Fannie Mae found that in February, only 17% of respondents thought now was a good time to buy, while 82% said it was a bad time to buy. Some 59% of respondents did say it was a good time to sell—still, very few are walking the talk.
Realtor.com data shows that new listings—a measure of sellers putting homes up for sale—are lower than a year ago, by 13% in the most recent week. That’s probably because many homeowners would be selling in order to buy something else, and few people want to be in that position.
Andi DeFelice, the real estate agent trying to help the Watts family find their home, has another client couple who are so frustrated with the process that the husband refuses to look at another home, says DeFelice, a broker with Exclusive Buyer’s Realty.
“He can’t handle the disappointment,” she says. Like the Watts family, this couple has been outbid on multiple homes.
“It’s like being rejected for one date after another,” DeFelice says. “It’s exhausting, and they start to take it personally. I’ve never seen this before in 30 years in this business. Everyone is feeling the same frustration, everyone from first-timers all the way up.”
DeFelice says the constant rejections don’t affect her—“for me, it’s a business transaction”—but the grind is getting to some agents as well.
Rich Harty, a broker with Harty Realty Group in Chicago, talks about the personal sacrifices he’s made over the past few years.
“You’re out to dinner with friends, and you get a call—’We want to put the offer in’—and you’ve got to go,” Harty says. “Sometimes you know your buyer doesn’t even have a chance, but as the agent, you need to follow their instructions.”
Harty is a marathon runner and tapped into what he calls the “Mile 23” spirit to muscle through some of the hard times over the past few years. But he sees some of his buyers in the same boat as Jenna Watts: Just when they’d started to get into the swing of bidding competitively, mortgage rates surged, knocking them down a notch in terms of affordability. Now they would have to stretch just as far, only for properties that aren’t as good.
Inside home sellers’ struggles
If buyers have it so hard, sellers must be sitting pretty, right? Not necessarily.
“I do see fatigue,” says Chris Crook, an agent with Flyhomes in Seattle. But where many would-be buyers are fatigued after many attempts at a purchase, plenty of homeowners are fatigued just making the decision to sell or not.
Crook says many are kicking themselves for not taking advantage of stronger market conditions—higher prices, lower mortgage rates—that were prevalent last year.
And some who bought homes on the assumption they’d be able to work from home indefinitely are now having to return to the office. Those owners might not have enough equity built up to make a sale worth it. What’s more, many of them recently watched neighbors sell for thousands over the asking price.
“Nowadays, you have to have tough conversations with sellers because most of the time they have short-term memories,” Crook says. On the flip side, he says, there are some agents who skip the “tough” part and just list homes for the higher prices owners demand.
“That’s doing a disservice to them,” Crook adds. “They’re telling owners what they want to hear and not guiding and educating them in the right direction.”
Hale agrees: “That normal housing market before the [COVID-19] pandemic seems so long ago, that it isn’t a valid reference point for a lot of people,” she points out. “It’s been hard for sellers.”
What comes next for homebuyers and sellers?
But with everyone burned out, is it possible that things just might get better? This will depend a bit on where mortgage rates go. And seasonally at least, we’re at the brink of the spring upswing, where buyers renew their resolve to find a house and get out there.
DeFelice, for one, has hope for the Watts and other buyers.
“Although I’ve never seen conditions like this before, I know at the end of the day, we’re going to find them the house,” she says. “We just have to be patient.”