Chasing A Moving Target

Posted by urbandigs

Thu Dec 11th, 2008 09:20 AM

A: A post for the sellers out there after getting some calls recently about this topic. If I had one piece of advice to Manhattan sellers, especially those who own properties that have few special resale features to offer (amazing park or river views, large outdoor space, fireplace, roof rights, amazing location, etc..), it would be to fight denial, resist the urge to anchor to peak prices, and to price your property aggressively at the outset. The hope is to be ahead-of-the-curve and to sell the property before you are forced to chase a moving target. The target of course are the buyers and the bid they may be willing to submit for your property.

chasing.jpgWhen I say 'chasing a moving target', I refer to any property that has reduced their asking price 3,4, or even 5 times over the course of the listing in the desperate hopes to find out where "market value" is. This type of seller is chasing a moving target, a target of buyers that seem to be running away ahead of them; finding themselves behind the curve chasing the market as it falls. As the buyers run away due to declining confidence and deteriorating economic fundamentals, the seller's are chasing them down with the hopes of catching up. The result tends to be counterproductive because it ultimately can lead to fierce sell side competition and even a further depression of buy side confidence.

Let's say you are a buyer and you find an apartment that meets your needs. Now lets say that this property's asking price was reduced from $2,000,000 to $1,950,000, to $1,900,000, to $1,825,000, and is now asking $1,795,000; from original asking price to current asking price. As a savvy buyer in a market that is clearly pressured, with inventory clearly rising, with sales volume clearly way down, what are you going to be thinking about a potential bid?

Chances are you will say to yourself something like this..."well, the seller is obviously eager to sell because they keep reducing the asking price, so why not bid lower and see what type of response I get". This is the kind of psychology that occurs out in the field. Denying this exists, well, is to deny that psychology plays a role in the buyers mind during the buying process.

This buy side psychology is everywhere right now! Arguing this is to be an eternal optimist, and to see the silver lining in every situation; which is fine, but it may get you into trouble if you strategize a property sale in this manner. I'm not saying deals are not happening, they are, but deals that are happening are from buyers that are bidding cautiously! Even the Fed's beige book quoted Jonathan Miller's appraisal firm as telling us this:

"A major residential appraisal firm reports substantial deterioration in New York City's housing market over the past two months: prices of Manhattan co-ops and condos are reported to have fallen by 15 to 20 percent since mid-summer, though it is hard to get a clear handle on prices due to thin volume--much of the recent activity is reportedly from desperate sellers."
This is where deals are happening at, due to the illiquid nature of the marketplace right now! Sellers should learn from this real time information and price accordingly; but most are not. Most sellers are still anchored to previous sales in their buildings, even though the time & place of those sales were in an environment much less pressured than today. As far as I'm concerned, if you are going to use a comparable sale from 8-12 months ago, might as well plan on selling for 20% or so below that figure; calculating in a premium/discount for what floor you are on, light/view differences, layout differences, and renovation differences.

There is a reason sales volume will be down significantly for the months of OCT-DEC 2008, and the reason is a disconnect between buyers & sellers. So, who's right? The buyers of course! The buyers are ALWAYS RIGHT! Umm, correct me if I am wrong, but that apartment you are trying to sell is ONLY worth as much as a buyer is willing & able to pay for it! Nothing more, nothing less. Just because your broker can't believe a buyer is not biting at a certain price, just because a seller can't believe no bids came in after a reduction or two, is proof that the market has changed and that the target is moving!

As publisher of for the past 3 years, I am outrageously lucky to have such a great readership, and active forum for people to openly discuss their thoughts on any topic of the day. But one side effect is that sellers call me for help after they mistakenly fell for the oldest trick in the book; signing on with a broker that excels at the sales pitch, promises an unrealistic price for their property, and sells themselves as an expert on their building with plenty of buyers waiting already in the wings. Of course, the high price puts the seller behind the curve and forces them to ultimately chase the moving target; and there never really were any serious buyers to begin with! So, these sellers call me because they want to know what price their property should be listed at given the real time conditions of the marketplace. I can't help these people because they are signed to listing agreements with their broker, and it would be unethical of me to interfere and give advice to somebody else's client.

I don't care who you use to sell your property, but you need to be smart and acknowledge the world we are in RIGHT NOW! The world 6 months ago doesn't matter anymore. If you decide to price high because a broker promises that their business will get you that number, don't expect a quick sale! In fact, expect a long time on market with plenty of price reductions to re-stimulate traffic to your listing as time goes on.

The reasons why I think the next 2-3 quarters in Manhattan will continue to be pressured are as follows:

1) JOBS - when the forced marriages of the credit crisis close, the re-organization, costs cuts, and job cuts will be announced. I believe Merrill alone is expected to announce up to 30,000 job cuts when their deal with Bank of America closes next quarter. Merrill will not be the only financial institution to announce layoffs.

As it gets going in the financial sector, the slowdown will ultimately seap into the real economy here in NYC. The result will be layoffs at consumer driven business during the course of 2009. Its a very sad chapter of this crisis. To think that Manhattan real estate has seen the worst of the declines, as we enter a period of heavy job losses, is quite silly. Unfortunately, we must assume that X percentage of these jobs lost are from those that own a home here in Manhattan. Lets keep it real here as always, 2009 is likely to be the dark year for Manhattan's economy and it is certainly rational to expect this fundamental to continue to pressure the sell side of our real estate market.

2) APPRAISALS - NEGATIVE TIME VALUE - something that very few are discussing. Let us wake up the reality that the market has eroded and that the significant erosion in prices has not yet filtered through to closed sales. In comes 'negative time value' from the appraisal side. Now, when you do comps analysis on that property you are considering bidding for, you have to review comps from the past 6-8 months, which means the deal was signed into contract between 8-11 months ago or so. It's only when the deal closes that the purchase price is recorded as a matter of public record; and then used as a comp. Think about what will happen when NOV & DEC sales get recorded in JAN & FEB of next year! These fresh comps, that reflect the erosion I have been describing recently, will set the new hallmark for analysis!

Jonathan Miller adds:
"Conditions this fall have been characterized by low sales activity and price erosion. We have been making negative time adjustments on most of our appraisals during this period to reflect the change in value between the date the “comp” sold and current value. Not one lender has expressed concern and in fact, continue to remind their approved appraisers to reflect current market conditions in their reports. The rapid change in this underwriting orientation is personally shocking to me since underwriting has been detached from reality for so long. In my view, restoring trust in the lending process begins with having correct valuations as a benchmark for informed lending decisions."
When these deals close, and are entered into the system as comps, it will set the new level for future analysis. The question then becomes, how much longer will the appraisers price in 'negative time value' into their #s?

3) MEDIA - I am telling you that the market is illiquid, sales volume down significantly, and that deals being done today are in the 15-25% down from peak range. It is likely that these contracts that are signed today, will close in the next 1-3 months. With that said, it appears Q1 of 2009, released April of 2009, could be an ugly report. If it is, and reflects what real time information I am discussing here, then the media is going to go overboard with it.

The effects on buy side confidence and psychology from the media's take on the Manhattan market at that time, is likely to further dampen demand at a time when many sellers will probably have a time pressure to move the property. Time will tell if the media enhances this slowdown cycle.

4) POCKETS OF DISTRESS - feeds from #1. It is likely we see more pockets of distress as long as this market REMAINS ILLIQUID! That is the key phrase, illiquid! If this market remains illiquid, and there are few bids being submitted, trust me, you will eventually see those sellers that absolutely must move property. This may lead to some fierce sell side competition IF the market remains illiquid for a significant portion of 2009. I generally ask myself, what fundamentals will improve over the next few quarters that will lead to a wave of buyers entering this market with strong bids, adding liquidity to the market? I have trouble rationalizing an answer to this question right now.

Sellers, price ahead of the curve for any hope of avoiding chasing a moving target!