As she hunted for a home this summer, first-time buyer Xinyu Li found herself feeling emotionally overwhelmed. She and her boyfriend had several offers rejected, and Xinyu compulsively checked online listings.
“It was a lot of stress and anxiety,” she says. “I had to go to therapy.”
Xinyu’s psychotherapist advised her on mindfulness strategies and suggested looking at online listings just once a day. After Xinyu closed on a New York City condo and no longer devoted endless hours to her home search, she felt better and stopped seeing her therapist.
Shopping for a home is a stressful experience even in normal times. Partly it’s the sheer size of the transaction — a house is the largest single purchase most people make. Then there are the emotional considerations about lifestyle issues such as commute times, school quality and neighborhood crime rates.
Raising the stakes for homebuyers’ mental health, the housing market of 2021 is anything but normal. Prices have soared to record highs, inventory is super-tight and bidding wars are common.
Those market conditions have intensified a process that’s always challenging into one that can test the mental health of even the most experienced homebuyer.
“There’s a deeply emotional tie to homeownership in general,” says Ryan Gorman, president and CEO of Coldwell Banker Real Estate. “In a tough market and an inventory-constrained market, there are more buyers than there are homes to buy. When something is emotionally important to you, financially important to you, and challenging, it can be quite stressful.”
Home prices on a tear
During the coronavirus pandemic, home prices have risen at a double-digit clip. The typical American house sold for $352,800 in September, up from $311,500 a year earlier, according to the National Association of Realtors.
In Xinyu’s case, the stakes were even higher. She and her boyfriend paid $882,000 for their Brooklyn condo.
Those are the sort of numbers that create high-pressure situations, says Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University and author of Predictably Irrational and other books.
“All large purchases have a potential of creating a lot of stress,” Ariely says. “By definition, large purchases mean any mistake can be large. It’s inherent.”
Bidding wars create many losers
If buying a home is always stressful, today’s inventory shortage adds a new wrinkle: Sharp-elbowed buyers are fighting one another for homes.
Only one person wins a bidding war. If there are a dozen buyers vying for one house, 11 walk away losers.
“The biggest source of buyer disappointment is losing out on a property,” says Xinyu’s broker, James McGrath of real estate brokerage Yoreevo. “To avoid disappointment as much as possible, it’s important to have appropriate expectations. Losing out always stings, but if a buyer knows their odds are 25 percent instead of 95 percent, it won’t be so disappointing.”
Of course, the level of competition adds a new layer of stress. Buyers know they need to bid aggressively to prevail in a bidding war — but that reality adds the risk of paying too much.
‘A hellish experience’
First-time buyer John Dempsey moved into his new place in early November. He paid $255,000 for a townhouse in Wilton Manors, Florida.
That victory came only after a monthslong home search that he describes as “a hellish experience.” Dempsey lost bidding wars on six properties — after each time envisioning himself moving into the home he didn’t get.
“You place a tiny little piece of your heart in the home. And then all of a sudden, the carpet is pulled out from under you,” Dempsey says. “You start to get despondent.”
Dempsey struggled with an agent who often took hours to respond to his inquiries. He finally switched to a buyer’s agent with Better.com, the mortgage and real estate company where Dempsey works as an executive assistant.
“She was so communicative,” Dempsey says. “She was like, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to get it.’”
Dempsey is happily at home in his new place, and he says the experience underscored the significance of feelings in the home-buying process.
“I think people forget about the emotional connection home has,” Dempsey says. “To me, home is your solace. It’s your peace.”
How to cope with a trying home sale market
But emotions can be just as important, especially in an imbalanced market. Here are a few tactics and tricks to calm your mind and maintain your mental health:
- Understand just how crazy this market is. Coldwell Banker’s Gorman suggests a “level-setting conversation” with your real estate agent to establish expectations around pricing, pacing and the level of competition. “Even if you’ve bought a house before, this market is not like it was then,” Gorman says.
- Prepare to lose. “Losing is not fun in anything, whether it’s a game of checkers or the bid on a home,” Gorman says. The deep emotional stakes with a home purchase make losing especially tough.
- Pace yourself. Xinyu’s frantic searches of listings left her no closer to landing a property. “There’s kind of a paradox there,” Gorman says. “I’m not sure that endless Googling is going to give you any more information. Hitting refresh every 5 seconds is probably stressing you out and not really helping you.”
- Find an agent to guide you through the process. Dempsey says his first agent’s spotty communication soured the process for him. Gorman isn’t surprised. “A lack of information creates a void that is often filled by fear,” he says. Gorman says “a quiet conversation with a skilled agent” is crucial.
- Adopt the mindset of inevitability. Ariely says you should eliminate the yes-or-no part of the decision. “People need a new home, and there’s not an option not to get one,” he says. By dispensing with that bit of uncertainty, you can narrow your focus to choosing the right home.
- Give yourself a time limit. Ariely suggests setting a deadline of three months, for instance. Within that time frame, accept the best property you can find.