Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 10, 2022

Illusion vs. reality in real estate market

Strong demand, weak inventory escalate stress

Bekah Cochran is a Realtor with Keller Williams Greater Downtown Realty. She says being a homebuyer or a Realtor has never been more stressful but training and experience can help an agent serve clients at a high level. - Photograph provided

Bekah Cochran is standing in the midst of two colliding storms. Made of fast winds and electric fury, either tempest could do substantial damage.

But instead of seeing the dark clouds and scattered debris, Cochran is looking beyond them to where a rainbow stands as a promise of peace and prosperity.

“I’m not joking,” laughs Cochran, 38. “I’ve been seeing rainbows. God knew storms were coming.”

There are several depictions of rainbows in Cochran’s office at Keller Williams Greater Downtown Realty. Her daughter Charlotte Grace, 9, painted one, while a local artist rendered another. More reveal themselves as one scans her roomy space, peeking out from between knickknacks on shelves and radiating luminescent colors from crowded sections of wall.

She says the rainbows calm her spirit as she fights to remain on her feet.

Cochran is not alone in the first storm. Rather, her fellow Realtors in Chattanooga are there with her as a scarcity of houses, fierce bidding wars and rising mortgage rates combine to create one of the most demanding times any of them have experienced – including those who weathered the housing crash of 2008.

“The illusion is the market is on fire, and I’m killing it,” Cochran says. “But the truth is representing a buyer at the highest level is one of the hardest things a Realtor can do right now.”

Cochran is positioned upright in the middle of her office. To say she’s standing would be inaccurate, as she’s constantly in motion, shifting back and forth on her feet and using her hands and arms to emphasize her words, as though she’s using a private and expressive sign language. If Cochran were to sit, it’s unlikely the chair could contain her for long.

“You need to have a lot of energy to survive in this business,” she says in answer to a question about her animated nature.

One challenging aspect of representing a homebuyer in the current market involves helping them to reset their expectations, Cochran explains. With the housing shortage pushing prices upward – as much as 18-30% depending on the ZIP code this year alone, she notes – and mounting interest rates nudging monthly payments even higher, buyers are generally purchasing less house for more money than they would have a couple of years ago.

“If you were expecting to spend $350,000, then you’d now be looking at a house that’s worth $320,000, or even $299,000 because we might have to bid above the list price,” Cochran says. “That’s a $50,000 gap. It’s a different house.”

Cost increases and dashed expectations have led to a jump in buyer fallout, Cochran adds.

“I was scheduled to show three houses at 5 o’clock tonight, but my client canceled because interest rates have gone up too much for her. She said she needs to reevaluate her expectations. I don’t believe being a homebuyer or a Realtor has ever been this stressful.”

Of course, stress is beside the point in a market in which even a speeding train would fall short as a way of describing how quickly houses are selling. Cochran says she’s actually written and submitted offers before her buyers saw a house to avoid missing the opportunity.

“There was a day when sellers wouldn’t begin to accept offers without giving everyone a chance to view their property. Then you could sleep on it, pray about it and talk it over with your family – and the house would still be available.

“Now when a house comes on the market, you need to pull the comps, calculate the margins and write the offer. If you don’t hurry, you’ve already lost.”

Slipping a bid into a stack of offers is only the beginning of the battle to secure the house, Cochran continues. Once a buyer has captured the interest of a seller and the back-and-forth begins, things can really heat up.

In a word, negotiations have become “aggressive,” Cochran says. Then she adds a second word.

“Negotiations have become extremely aggressive.”

This is where Cochran’s protective instincts as a Realtor kick in. When she works with buyers who seem willing to leap at any opportunity, she projects her thoughts to the impact the purchase can have on them down the road.

“If the margins are $180,000 to $220,000, but you’re looking at paying $230,000 to $250,000, then you and I are going to have a candid conversation about this being an upswing in the market,” she explains. “I don’t want you to overpay for something you won’t be able to sell in three years after you get married and have a baby because the market has corrected itself.

“Buying a house is the largest financial investment most people make and I don’t want anyone to go into it blind.”

Cochran doubles down when a lengthy home inspection summary is returned. It’s presently not unusual for homeowners to insist on selling their house without making any repairs, which can lead to buyer’s remorse, she says.

“When your client is paying more than the ticket price, they want it to be perfect, so when the inspection summary is 13 pages long, you have to take steps to protect them.”

Cochran remains sensitive to this issue when she’s representing sellers as well.

“I had a couple that didn’t want to do any repairs. The comps were at $475,000, I listed their home at $499,000 and we were under contract for $535,000. That’s a big chunk of money, so I told them to hire a handyman. I said I’d roll up my sleeves and help if that’s what it took to get the buyers a win.”

From navigating appraisal gaps (the difference between the appraised value of a house and the amount a buyer agreed to pay for it), to trying to rope booked out home inspectors, there seems to be no end to the roadblocks that make buying a house today harder than it has ever been, Cochran exhales.

“One day, I woke up to a message from clients who said the price on a house they wanted had changed on Zillow. We’d seen the house and made an offer the previous day and the agent had said he’d be in touch. That was rude, and my clients were devastated.”

As Cochran says this, the motion activated lights in her office turn off, despite her constantly moving. She switches them back on with a wave of an arm and says she wishes everything were as easy.

Open channels of communication between agents would help to mitigate some issues, Cochran suggests.

“I’ve had an agent show a client and me a property and then change it to contingent without letting us know. That’s frustrating. So the first thing I do when my buyers want to see a house is ask the agent if there are active negotiations or offers on the property.”

(When a house is listed as contingent, the seller has accepted an offer but is keeping the listing active in case the prospective buyer fails to meet certain contingencies.)

On a roll, Cochran continues to vent.

“You can make an offer at list price and then sweeten the offer if the sellers call for the highest and best. But I’ve had listing agents not give us an opportunity to increase an offer. Real estate is a pressure cooker right now.”

It’s not like real estate was a breeze before, Cochran admits, but it’s never been this intense.

Cochran could say the same thing about her private life, which became an open book when she publicly revealed she and her husband are divorcing.

This second storm is adding its potency to the first to envelop Cochran in a vortex of stress and grief. She adds her tears to the downpour as she speaks about what happened.

“We’re the couple that didn’t make it through COVID. Working from home with four kids under 11 and trying to keep our businesses going was beyond stressful,” she says. “I love him and the family we made together but there are seasons within relationships.”

For the first time since Cochran began speaking, she’s motionless except for the effort she’s making to stop the drops falling from her eyes.

The shift in her demeanor is jarring because she’s always smiling, always hugging others and always radiating the same bright luminescence as the rainbows on her office walls. Her Facebook page projects this same inner joy with its beaming photos of her and her children and quotes like “A beautiful day begins with a beautiful mindset” and “Make happiness a habit.”

But in this moment, Cochran is allowing the color blue to dim the space around her.

“My intention is to let my mess be a lesson for the next person about how to not only exist within it but to also go through it.”

Lacking any tissue – because why would someone with a constant smile need them – she wipes her eyes with her fingers and abruptly steers her thoughts back to real estate.

“I’m glad Keller Williams taught me how to build my business. And I’m glad for the years of experience I have selling homes. These things are allowing me to not just survive in this market but thrive.”

People would understand if Cochran chose to temporarily draw back from her business and the other public aspects of her life while she and her husband finalize their split and she then recovers. But just like Cochran doubles down when one of her buyers gets frustrating news, she’s pressing forward with her characteristic pluck.

Her business is growing with the addition of a new team member and she continues to coach other Keller Williams agents one-on-one and teach real estate classes for the company throughout the Southeast.

Cochran also just awarded her annual Busy Bekah Scholarship to another college-bound McMinn County High School senior.

She also reads her Bible every morning and volunteers at a local school.

“I’m trying to continue to show up and not be a walking ball of stress.”

If Cochran does begin to feel herself buckling in the fast winds and electric fury that surround her, she looks beyond the dark clouds and scattered debris to where a rainbow stands as a promise of peace and prosperity.

“I have no idea what tomorrow looks like but I pray for the Holy Spirit to lead me and I know God is carrying me through this day by day. It’s no coincidence I’m seeing rainbows.”