Home Sellers Go On Strike

Fortune April 6, 2023


Home Sellers Go On Strike

The U.S. housing market has entered into its peak annual spring season where buyers and sellers alike get serious about their moves. Only this year there’s something off: Not a lot of homes are going up for sale.

According to Realtor.com, only 349,284 U.S. homes were listed for sale in March 2023. That’s below the 437,270 listed in March 2022—a period that was infamous for its tight supply—and far below the 478,100 listed in March 2019.

What’s going on? Well, sellers have sort of gone on strike.

See, if someone is eager to sell their home right now in search of a new property, they would likely be giving up their 2% or 3% mortgage rate—one of the biggest financial perks of the pandemic—for a 6% mortgage rate. The idea of getting a substantially larger monthly mortgage payment has a lot of would-be buyers opting to stay put. Cue fewer homes coming onto the market.

That said, this pullback in new listings isn’t just felt on the supply side, it’s also delivering a hit to the demand side. If a particular homeowner decides to hold off on trading up properties, it means there is one fewer home going on the market and one fewer buyer hitting the market.

The best way to describe the housing market over the past year is a fight between tight supply and deteriorated affordability.

So do buyers or sellers have the upper hand?

Unlike the new listing total (i.e. the number of homes going on the market in a given month), the active listing total (i.e. total inventory on the market) is a better indicator for the balance in a market at any given time.

At first glance, it might be easy to assume that active listings/inventory is simply a measurement of supply; however, it’s also very much a measurement of demand. If buyers pull back, and homes sit on the market longer, that can increase inventory levels (currently up 59.9% on a year-over-year basis) even if new listings (currently down 20.1% on a year-over-year basis) decline.

What is active listings/inventory telling us right now? The fact that active listings/inventory continued to decline through March suggests that sellers are once again gaining power over buyers—at least relative to the second half of 2022, when inventory was on a somewhat speedy uptick.

While inventory has slipped a bit through the first few months of 2023, it does remain well above the historically tight levels hit in spring 2022. Among the 400 largest markets tracked by Realtor.com, 364 markets saw inventory (i.e. active listings) jump between March 2022 and March 2023. Nationally, total active listings/inventory spiked 59.9% from 351,846 in March 2022 to active listings in March 2023.

In places where inventory spiked the most, in particular overheated markets like Austin (up 312% over the past year) and Nashville (up 253%), that shift of power has been dramatic.

While buyers have seen an increase in power relative to the frenzied spring 2022 market, it doesn’t mean we’ve shifted into a buyer’s market. One of the reasons being, after all, this inventory jump hasn’t taken us back to a balanced market.

In fact, we’re far below pre-pandemic inventory levels: The 562,565 active listings on Realtor.com in March 2023 were 49.5% below the 1.1 million active listings in March 2019.

In theory, a market with inventory above pre-pandemic levels has seen the power dynamic shift dramatically in buyers’ favor. Markets with inventory levels far below pre-pandemic levels, on the other hand, have seen less of a dramatic shift.

Among the country’s 400 largest housing markets, just 14 are back to pre-pandemic (i.e. 2019) inventory levels. That includes overheated markets like Idaho Falls and Logan, Utah. Meanwhile, 386 major markets are still below 2019 inventory levels.

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