War Ripples Hit Real Estate

The New York Times
March 22, 2003

Joy Howell had planned to put her Washington condominium on the market this week, until real estate agents advised her that buyers might be skittish about a place just blocks from the White House.

"I decided to just postpone putting it on the market," Ms. Howell said. "People are a little bit nervous about real estate right now in this area, and they're not quite sure what impact going to war might have on the local economy." And, she added, "they're a little bit concerned about being a target."

It is far too soon to see a statistical change in home sales and prices, but real estate agents and brokers in Washington and New York City offered anecdotal evidence that over the last week both buyers and sellers have decided to wait and see, whether the war goes well and whether terrorists mount attacks in reprisal.

"The market has never experienced this kind of fear factor," said Tsegaye Tadesse, an agent for ReMax Capital in Washington, where the interest in home selling and buying has fallen. Some buyers are worried that the value of their investment could plummet in the wake of an attack, while sellers are worried that they will get shoddy offers, because buyers are jumpy, he said. Underlying these tough-to-measure worries are concerns that interest rates may begin to climb, especially if the war drags on and the federal deficit grows sharply. In New York, some homeowners, who plan to buy or sell, have postponed their plans. "We are seeing a number of people sitting on the fence," said Pamela Liebman, chief executive of the Corcoran Group, a residential real estate firm. "If it's a short war, they'll jump back in. They're waiting."

Ms. Liebman said the reluctance was primarily at the high end of the market. Below that, low interest rates have kept buying and selling brisk.

That was the case on Thursday. Yesterday, a $1.7 million Manhattan apartment newly on the market attracted 15 viewing appointments by the end of the afternoon, Ms. Liebman said, surmising that the war's start had meant a relief from uncertainty for many New Yorkers.

The last shock to housing, after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, had much more immediate and unambiguous consequences. In the weeks after the attacks, prices and sales in the residential market declined nationwide, and fell even further in New York and Washington, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Other cities were also affected. "It almost literally came to a stop for a week or two," recalled Avram Goldman, president of the San Francisco Bay Area franchise of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. "If we look back and compare now to post-9/11, we're nowhere near where it was then."

Homeowners anticipated this war, he said. "Even going back to the Iraqi war in '91 — even that came as more of a shock."

Still, Mr. Goldman has observed some subtle changes in the mood of the Bay Area housing market, since the war began. Buyers in negotiations are slightly more tense and hesitant, he said, and offers on properties are not as forthcoming.

"I think there will certainly be a segment that will hold off for a while," as much out of fear as out of fascination with the world's affairs, Mr. Goldman said. "I think there will be some people, certainly, that will be glued to their TV's."

Nevertheless, he added, "the majority of the market is going forward with their plans."

Some potential sellers in Philadelphia are also holding off, according to Prudential Fox & Roach Realtors in Devon, Pa., the largest agency serving the area. Fewer properties are going on sale there, than even in February, when activity fell after several snowstorms.

The current wartime slackening "is by no means enormous," said Stephen R. Storti, the firm's vice president for marketing.

"But there is, of course, going to be some effect," he added. "It is making people hesitate, because they don't know what's happening with the economy." Then again, he added, the slowdown may simply be an extension of the February falloff.

Agents pointed to the time after Sept. 11 in suggesting that any retreat in sales would be short-lived. After the initial shock of the terror attacks, housing prices quickly recovered both nationally and in New York and Washington, said Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.

"Within a few weeks it had bounced back and we set a new record," he said. Moreover, the association estimates that 5.5 million existing homes will be sold this year, down only slightly from 5.6 million last year. "All that happened was a temporary disruption in the marketplace," Mr. Molony said.

Despite anxieties in some big cities, there are few signs that real estate markets in most parts of the country have been affected by war and terror-related fears. The farther a home for sale is from downtown Washington or Manhattan, the less of a concern terror attacks seem to be, agents said.

Dale Mattison, an associate broker for Long & Foster Realtors in Washington, said he had noticed no buyers or sellers holding off.

"Because of all the upheaval in world affairs, people are looking to things that might comfort them, and a new home is one of those kinds of things," Mr. Mattison said. "Overall, if you look at the numbers of transactions, we're not seeing any noticeable dip in the market."

Brokers and agents also said they had not seen any panic sellers — people trying to move out of cities perceived as high risk. Ms. Howell, for example, said she was planning to move to another building only a little farther from the White House, than her current condominium.

"I'm a committed Washingtonian," she said.