We try to describe, explain, and predict patterns of prices, supply, and demand. The closely related field of housing economics is narrower in scope, concentrating on residentialreal estate markets, while the research of real estate trends focuses on the business and structural changes affecting the industry.
The main participants in real estate markets are:
- Owner/user: These people are both owners and tenants. They purchase houses or commercial property as an investment and also to live in or utilize as a business.
- Owner: These people are pure investors. They do not consume the real estate that they purchase. Typically they rent out or lease the property to someone else.
- Renter: These people are pure consumers.
- Developers: These people prepare raw land for building, which results in new products for the market.
- Renovators: These people supply refurbished buildings to the market.
- Facilitators: This group includes banks, real estate brokers, lawyers, and others that facilitate the purchase and sale of real estate.
The owner/user, owner, and renter form the demand side of the market, while the developers and renovators form the supply side. In order to apply simple supply and demand analysis to real estate markets, a number of modifications need to be made to standard microeconomic assumptions and procedures. In particular, the unique characteristics of the real estate market must be accommodated. These characteristics include:
- Durability. Real estate is durable. A building can last for decades or even centuries, and the land underneath it is practically indestructible. Because of this, real estate markets are modeled as a stock/flow market. About 98% of supply consists of the stock of existing houses, while about 2% consists of the flow of new development. The stock of real estate supply in any period is determined by the existing stock in the previous period, the rate of deterioration of the existing stock, the rate of renovation of the existing stock, and the flow of new development in the current period. The effect of real estate market adjustments tend to be mitigated by the relatively large stock of existing buildings.
- Heterogeneity. Every unit of real estate is unique in terms of its location, the building, and its financing. This makes pricing difficult, increases search costs, creates information asymmetry, and greatly restricts substitutability. To get around this problem, economists, beginning with Muth (1960), define supply in terms of service units; that is, any physical unit can be deconstructed into the services that it provides. Olsen (1969) describes these units of housing services as an unobservable theoretical construct. Housing stock depreciates, making it qualitatively different from new buildings. The market-equilibrating process operates across multiple quality levels. Further, the real estate market is typically divided into residential, commercial, and industrial segments. It can also be further divided into subcategories like recreational, income-generating, historical or protected, and the like.
- High transaction costs. Buying and/or moving into a home costs much more than most types of transactions. The costs include search costs, real estate fees, moving costs, legal fees, land transfer taxes, and deed registration fees. Transaction costs for the seller typically range between 1.5% and 6% of the purchase price. In some countries in continental Europe, transaction costs for both buyer and seller can range between 15% and 20%.
- Long time delays. The market adjustment process is subject to time delays due to the length of time it takes to finance, design, and construct new supply and also due to the relatively slow rate of change of demand. Because of these lags, there is great potential for disequilibrium in the short run. Adjustment mechanisms tend to be slow relative to more fluid markets.
- Both an investment good and a consumption good. Real estate can be purchased with the expectation of attaining a return (an investment good), with the intention of using it (a consumption good), or both. These functions may be separated (with market participants concentrating on one or the other function) or combined (in the case of the person that lives in a house that they own). This dual nature of the good means that it is not uncommon for people to over-invest in real estate—that is, to invest more money in an asset than it is worth on the open market.
- Immobility. Real estate is locationally immobile (save for mobile homes, but the land underneath them is still immobile). Consumers come to the good rather than the good going to the consumer. Because of this, there can be no physical marketplace. This spatial fixity means that market adjustment must occur by people moving to dwelling units, rather than the movement of the goods. For example, if tastes change and more people demand suburban houses, people must find housing in the suburbs, because it is impossible to bring their existing house and lot to the suburb (even a mobile home owner, who could move the house, must still find a new lot). Spatial fixity combined with the close proximity of housing units in urban areas suggest the potential for externalities inherent in a given location.