When selling a home in an unfavorable market, it can be hard to face some facts. Most likely, your home will not command the price you want. It might be hard to cut your losses and move on. And you may find you have more emotional ties to selling your home than logical ones.
Such feelings are not a surprise, says retirement expert Jan Cullinane, author of “The New Retirement: The Ultimate Guide to the Rest of Your Life” and the upcoming “The Single Woman’s Guide to Retirement” (John Wiley & Sons, 2012). Business decisions often are more emotional than we realize. But understanding some basic theories of behavioral economics—how psychology affects economic decision-making—can help us all make better financial decisions.
“Leaving a home can be very emotional,” Cullinane says. Yet, she adds, when we need to sell a home in a down market, we need to understand the obstacles and the behavioral economic factors so we can cut the emotional ties.
“We’re much more emotional, like Homer Simpson in our thinking, rather than logical like Spock from ‘Star Trek,’” Cullinane says. “When it comes time to sell our home, it helps if we are aware of these factors and how we think.”
Being aware of the following behavioral economic concepts help with this difficult decision-making:
Status quo bias. “It’s easier to do nothing than to do something,” Cullinane explains. People don’t want to change things unless there are compelling reasons.
Loss aversion. In this market, you may have to sell your home for less than you thought. On the flipside, when you buy your next property, you’re likely to buy it at a discount. But that doesn’t always make us happy. “We feel worse about a loss than we feel happy about a gain,” Cullinane says. Recognizing our loss aversion can help us come to terms with the loss and appreciate the gain.
Endowment effect. “We put a higher value on something we own than on something we don’t own,” Cullinane says. The endowment effect can create a roadblock when putting a home on the market. It also means that others won’t value our home the same way we do.
Anchor. We all have an “anchor”—a fixed price for which we think our home should sell—and we don’t want to sell it for less than that amount. Often, our anchor is based on what we paid for the house and what we feel it should be worth now, even if market conditions have changed dramatically. We need to get past that emotional anchor. “Let’s face it, your home is worth what someone is willing to pay for it,” Cullinane says.
Sunk costs. When we have put money into something that we can’t get back, we have a tough time cutting our costs and moving on. For instance, if you remodeled your deck, you may not be able to recoup that money when you sell. You need to realize that money is a sunk cost—it already has been spent and you won’t get it back—and move on.
If you’re retiring, or moving for other reasons, it helps to realize that your home is not worth now what it once was. Those high sales prices aren’t coming back any time soon, but you can get a good deal on a new purchase.
“Knowing that you feel worse about a loss than you feel happy about a gain—and recognizing that intellectually—goes a long way to getting over that emotional hurdle,” Cullinane says. “Knowledge is power.”
A Chicago-based writer and editor, Eve Becker writes about personal finance, health, and other topics. She is a former managing editor of Tribune Media Services.