Charles Dickens wasn't thinking about the current housing market when he wrote, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."
But the description fits and the dilemma is particularly burdensome for military families transferring to Robins Air Force Base and to installations across the country.
If base housing is not available, they must tangle with off-base uncertainties, knowing that in two or three years they likely will receive orders to pack up and leave. So the nagging questions become: Do they buy or rent? Do they wade into this “best of times, worst of times” market?
Locally, there is an abundance of homes on the market, many at reduced prices due to bank foreclosures or homeowners desperate to sell for a variety of reasons. Mortgage interest is at historic levels – with 30-year fixed rates as low as 3.75 percent. Buyers can afford “much more house” than they could only a short time ago. That’s the best of times.
On the other hand, homes linger on the market for months and often bring much less than sellers want or need. Dwindling prices have also driven values “under water” for some homes, meaning that offers likely won’t cover the current mortgage balance.
Most military families at Robins have the option of living in privatized housing provided through a partnership between the Air Force and Hunt Building Corporation. Some 250 units on base and more than 600 in nearby Huntington Village provide a safe haven. Families are accommodated in essentially new or newly renovated homes and must surrender only their monthly housing allowance. If transfer orders come, they turn in the keys and walk away with no obligation.
However, some families – about 250 currently –cannot be accommodated and must make the fateful decision to buy or lease off base.
Bob Sharples, capital asset manager for the Robins housing office, agrees with the “best of times, worst of times” label for the real estate market. He believes most military families are leasing rather than buying.
“We don’t really have data on what people decide to do, but I would think the majority are leasing because of the trouble in selling their home when they receive a transfer notice,” Sharples said.
He said choosing to invest in the “best of times” side of the equation is a personal decision.
“But there could be the burden of having to rent your house when you leave because you can’t sell it,” he pointed out.
Sharples has noticed an uptick in local home owners willing to lease rather than sell their homes … and being flexible in the process.
“Homes are leasing more or less for the cost of the owner’s mortgage,” he said, “and some are including things like grounds maintenance. They’re being competitive and that’s allowing our airmen to get more home for their money.”
Military families also have access to the Automated Housing Referral Network, a Defense Department data base that lists homes for sale or rent by military members.
“That’s the route a lot of folks are taking,” Sharples indicated. “We’ve had a lot of hits from people coming to Robins. It enables military families to deal with other military families.”
Kathy Balletto, an associate broker with Golden Key Realty in Warner Robins, said she would be reluctant to advise purchasing a home if military families expect to be transferred within two years.
“That’s iffy in a good market,” she pointed out, “and in a bad market it’s scary.”
The 33-year real estate veteran said she is humbled when an owner must lose substantial money to sell their home.
“But if they’re turning around and purchasing here or somewhere else, they’re benefitting on the other end,” she noted. “So my hope and prayer is that it’s coming out in the wash for them.”
There are some bright sides for both buyers and sellers. “When I was first licensed, interest rates were 8.5 percent,” Balletto recalled. “It went to 9.5 then to 14 and 16 percent. And we still sold houses here. I don’t know if people understand how good a time this is because rates are so low. They can just buy a lot more house.”
Lenders also are starting to ease up on buyer qualifications.
“They are cautious about appraisals – as they should be and should always have been,” she explained. “But there are a few more lenders I can recommend who won’t ask for your first-born child as collateral.”
All of that should help sellers. “The good news for them,” Balletto stressed, “is that if the house is priced right, we can sell it in Houston County. We’re very, very lucky.”