Short memories in the real estate market

Updated: 2013-07-21 08:24

(The New York Times)

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Short memories in the real estate market

Nearly five years after the global economic meltdown, the American economy appears to be on the mend. Time, it seems, for real estate madness to resume.

In Manhattan, where the average price of an apartment this spring was $1.425 million, renewed confidence among consumers and low interest rates have strengthened sales and driven down the number of available apartments to the lowest in more than a decade, creating a demand that can't be met. A rush of nervous buyers and higher prices, and familiar frenzy, has returned.

"[S]igns planted in a window or on the Web are greeted by a tidal wave of desperate buyers and frantic offers," Elizabeth A. Harris reported in The Times. "And almost as quickly as they appear, those listings are gone."

Hopeful buyers are being discouraged by jam-packed open houses, outbid by others or turned away by sellers requiring cash purchases (for those who might have $1 million or so sitting in their bank accounts).

Those determined to stay in the game and buy, Ms. Harris writes, are being driven to extremes. Michael Munn, a math professor, rushed back to the city in the middle of his vacation to see a newly listed apartment. "Everybody was warning me how emotional it can become," Professor Munn told The Times. "It's a huge purchase, it's exciting and nerve-racking. But this is a whole different emotion. It felt very manic."

He missed out on the apartment. It went to a higher bidder.

Since home ownership is considered an essential part of the American dream, few in the past have even asked the $1.425 million dollar question: Is it all worth it? But that has begun to change, not just in the shark tank of New York, but throughout the country.

"A growing body of research suggests that spending money on real estate doesn't necessarily mean investing in contentment," The Times reported. "Indeed, the conventional advice to cut back on vacations, restaurant meals and other extras in order to save money for a home may actually be detrimental to felicity."

For one thing, many of those who buy their "dream house" find themselves unprepared for the cost in both time and money that ownership requires.

Elizabeth Dunn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, told The Times that there is little evidence that home ownership leads to personal happiness. A small study in 2011 study at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania polled 600 women in Ohio and found that those who owned homes weren't any happier than renters.

A study of more than 3,600 people in Germany between 1991 and 2007 who moved to a new home reported they experienced some increase in contentment in the first five years, but weren't more satisfied in the long run. In fact, research on spending over the past decade indicates that buying material goods like real estate and cars brings less overall happiness than does spending on experiences, like evenings out with friends and travel.

Choices like these would be considered luxuries by many of those hit by the economic crisis. An editorial in The Times last month put the situation in New York plainly: "More than 50,000 New Yorkers slept in city homeless shelters and on the streets last night. About 21,000 were children."

In Spain, where thousands have been evicted since the crisis hit, squatting in empty apartments became a tactic for survival. Rafael Martin Sanz, the president of a real estate management company in Seville, said the meaning of a new home search changed.

"The joke is that half the people touring apartments that are on the market are actually just picking out which apartment they want to squat in," he told The Times. PETER CATAPANO

(China Daily 07/21/2013 page9)