Stuck at home

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2010 - 3:57 PM

Homeowners used to take it for granted that they could relocate whenever they wanted to. But in today's housing market, mobility is no longer a given, and many people feel they have no choice but to stay in homes that no longer meet their needs.

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Stacy, left, and Leah Isaak would like to move so their daughter, Evelyn, 2, can grow up closer to her grandmother and other relatives.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Now that his kids have left the nest, Mark Linde is ready to downsize. "It's time for me to start putting away more money for retirement," he said.

Now that Leah and Stacy Isaak are parents, they yearn to move closer to relatives in North Dakota. "Family is the most important thing," Leah said.

Linde and the Isaaks are at different ends of the parenting continuum, but they share the same problem: Their dreams will have to wait until they can sell their current homes.

Many homeowners nationwide are in the same situation, stuck in a home they can't, or can't afford to, unload.

Americans were able to take mobility for granted during the housing boom years, but now a struggling market is rewriting the rules. The U.S. mobility rate fell last year to its lowest level since World War II, according to demographers and U.S. Census data. The percentage of people who haven't changed homes in the previous year was 85 percent in 2009, up from 83 percent in 2006.

Inside those statistics are frustrated individuals, like Linde, who feel anchored to a home that no longer meets their needs. He and his ex-wife had four school-age children when they built their house in Apple Valley, complete with five bedrooms and a lower-level game room for the kids. Now, 15 years later, he's divorced, his youngest is off at college, and Linde is living alone in a big, family-sized house. "Something smaller would fit me better," he said.

'Supporting a barn'

In 2008, he put the house on the market, after investing about $12,000 in improvements designed to ensure a timely sale, including new carpet, paint, appliances and granite countertops. It's been on the market almost continuously since then, with no offers, even though he's reduced the price from $468,000 to $418,500. "It used to be, this neighborhood was a hot seller," said Linde. "It's shocking. For people of our generation, it used to be, you buy a house, it grows in value, it's your main investment. Then you downsize and pull money out for retirement."

But so far, it's not working out that way for him. "I'm supporting a barn. I would be able to do more things if I felt more financial freedom," he said.

Margie Vigoren is another empty-nester ready for a smaller nest. She and her husband bought their three-bedroom house in Maple Plain 26 years ago when their eldest was 1. "It was our child-raising house," she said.

After their youngest daughter graduated three years ago, they started looking for something smaller and closer to the urban core. They bought a small fixer-upper in St. Louis Park, renovated it and finally put their Maple Plain house on the market in September. In the first three weeks, they had only one showing, Vigoren said, despite their agent's active efforts.

"It's driving my husband crazy; he has tools in two different places," she said. For now, their daughter, a college student, is living in the St. Louis Park house. But Vigoren is eager to move there herself. "I would certainly be taking advantage of the bike trail," which runs through the back yard, she said. "I can see myself and my husband biking to the farmers market on Saturday morning."

And she's ready to become part of a new community. "We've been visiting some of the churches there," she said. Maple Plain was a great place to raise kids, but she feels less connected now that her children have left home. "Our sense of community is disappearing because it revolved around them, their school and their activities," she said.

Loss of faith

While many people feel "stuck" in their homes, it's far from a universal situation, according to real estate broker/associate Dennis Libby of Re/Max Results. In many parts of the seven-country metro area, the "average days on market until sale" actually decreased from August 2009 to July 2010, according to the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors (www.mplsrealtor.com).

Libby is concerned that skewed data and unfounded fears are keeping buyers on the sidelines, despite low interest rates and ample inventory. "For people who still have money, this is a golden opportunity," he said. "But public confidence is not very high, and it deprives people of making prudent, quick decisions. We are all victims of not a lot of faith in the economy."

Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West, University of Nevada-Las Vegas, agreed that some markets remain active. But in general, "a lot of [buyers] are holding back," he said. "People are risk-averse. There's a greater hesitancy to leverage yourself."

Wary buyers aren't the only factor keeping people in homes that no longer meet their needs. Some who would like to move haven't even put their home on the market because they know its current market value is less than what they owe.

No easy way out

Leah and Stacy Isaak didn't have children when they bought their Apple Valley townhouse three years ago. They had just lost their firstborn, an infant son, and were grieving, not focused on the future, Leah said. But now they have a 2-year-old daughter and are eager to move closer to Stacy's family in North Dakota.

"I want her to have a close relationship with my husband's mom. It's killing her that she can't be with [her only grandchild]," Leah said. "We go every other month, but it takes eight hours."

Stacy, a North Dakota native, is ready to return. "The older I get, and now having a little one, the draw to go back near family is more important," he said. He'd love to have relatives and friends over for barbecues and holiday gatherings, and hunt and fish on his family's land.

But as much as the Isaaks would like to move, they haven't even tried to sell because they know they'd lose a lot of money. So for now, they're waiting. In two years, if their home's value hasn't recovered, they may rent out the townhouse and move to North Dakota anyway. "These things aren't as important as being with family," Leah said. "I do love Minnesota. But without the house, we would go."

Jim Hutchcroft also is ready to leave Minnesota. "The winters are brutal," he said. "My wife is from the South, and she's never gotten used to it."

The couple would like to move to a milder climate. But they owe more on their Maplewood home than it's currently worth, he said. They bought an older home eight years ago, and updated everything, using a second mortgage.

"Had we not done that, we could sell, but the second mortgage takes us over the top. We know [listing the house] is not worth doing." They won't walk away from the mortgage, he said.

Instead, they're waiting -- and dreaming. "Someday," Hutchcroft said.

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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