Real Estate's Resounding Hesitation

05/18/2010 11:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After the recession's smothering silence, local housing chatter is definitely picking up. However, if you listen carefully, you'll hear the hum of hemming and hawing, along with the din of indecision.

Having practiced real estate law for almost three decades, I am used to clients who have made up their minds regarding buying or selling by the time they contact me. In pre-recession days, my clients didn't vacillate on the path to closing; in fact, buyers and sellers hurriedly hustled into the fast lane, anxious to conclude their transactions. These days, uncertainty is pervasive: during the give-and-take between parties, there's often a pause to allow one side (or both) to think twice about whether they are even on the right route.

Sellers usually falter first. The price they've accepted is already galling them, no matter how primed they are to be realistic in the shadow of the recession. But the negotiations don't always end once the sellers agree to accept an infuriating price: that's when some bargaining buyers press for further concessions. In just the past few months, I've conveyed to strung-out sellers requests to replace a (non-leaking) roof, upgrade an (adequate) electrical service, elevate a buried oil tank, eliminate an elm tree, and resurface a driveway. Since lots of sellers are hard-pressed to pay off their mortgage, absorb their closing costs, and still have adequate funds to move on, they can't -- or are unwilling to -- comply with these demands. Yet they have qualms about refusing even the most unreasonable of requests. After all, they've been told how lucky they are to have buyers at all, compared to heaps of home sellers.

Buyer balkiness begins a bit later. They negotiate hard on the price, are relentless on supplementary stipulations, and often hold fast even when told sellers are refusing their requests ("no problem; there's another house just like it for sale down the street" is a frequent buyer retort). But when the contracts arrive, the what if's commence. What if the house doesn't appraise? What if I don't qualify for a mortgage? What if I do, but interest rates rise? What if I lose my job? What if I change my mind? What if I find a better -- or cheaper -- house?

Some buyers' doubts are easily addressed in the context of the contract, but others are not the simple remorse of past purchasers. I do the best I can to ascertain what is really bothering them, and never hesitate to advise clients when I think this is not the right time (or deal) for them. Occasionally they heed my counsel and back out; more often this spring they have decided to go forward.

The bottom line is that more deals are advancing these days, despite the droning doubts, and that's a definite plus. But I'm hesitant to call it a positive market until I'm hearing a lot less brake-squealing on the part of all concerned.