US workers saddled by houses that won't sell

Soft real estate markets hurt worker mobility as relocation gets more costly – financially and emotionally.

By , Staff writer

When Patrick Greenish accepted a job offer as an art director in Charlotte, N.C., last July, he assumed that his house in Orlando would sell quickly. His new employer offered to let him telecommute for a month until the sale was complete.

But when the month ended, the "For Sale" sign remained firmly planted in his front yard. Even so, the company expected him to be working in Charlotte.

"I had to leave everybody at home while the house was still on the market," Mr. Greenish says, referring to his wife and two young daughters. "It was a bit hard on everybody."

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That kind of challenge is becoming more common as a soft housing market is changing the landscape of relocation. Some potential employees are turning down new jobs or transfers they cannot sell their house or would have to take a heavy loss. And companies that offer relocation benefits are spending more for employees' moving expenses.

"It's costing companies an exorbitant amount of money to cover the loss on sale to get an employee moved," says Andrew Drescher, a relocation consultant with Relocation Benefits in Vienna, Va.

Many Fortune 1000 companies typically pay closing costs, he says, as well as giving employees payment for money they lost by selling their house quickly. But small firms often cannot afford that. "It's greatly affecting the ability of smaller companies to recruit top talent out of higher-priced markets," Mr. Drescher says.

As transferees or newly hired employees wait for their homes to sell, many are spending more time in temporary housing, disrupting family life. A few years ago, the average stay was 48 days, says Mindy Pauley, global account director of Bridge­StreetWorldwide, a temporary housing provider. "We're seeing that figure increase because of the inability to dispose of a house."

For months Greenish lived in a rented room in Charlotte, returning home every other weekend. The price on his house continued to drop.

"The profit was just going away," Greenish says. "We started questioning our decision to move. It was getting harder and harder – the financial issues of living in two places, traveling back and forth, and the general strain on a marriage."

The publishing company that hired him offered Greenish no relocation reimbursement or buyout of his house.

"That seems to be the trend now," he says. "If the company is actively recruiting somebody, or it's a high-level job, that's a different thing. But a lot of companies aren't ready to absorb relocation costs anymore."

He tells of a neighbor, an architect, who received only $1,000 from his new employer to move from Denver to Orlando.

In 2006, the average cost to transfer a current employee who owns a home was $64,235, according to Worldwide ERC. For a renter, the cost was $18,736. Moving new hires costs a business less.

In areas such as Florida, companies typically pay $2,000 to $3,000 a month for a furnished two-bedroom executive suite, Drescher says. In San Diego and San Francisco, monthly costs average between $3,000 and $5,000.

Moving companies hurt, too

Moving companies, too, are feeling repercussions. "We're dealing in a fairly soft market," says Ron Martin, regional sales manager for United Van Lines in St. Louis. "Business is based on corporations needing people."

Some companies are avoiding or postponing moves by turning to telecommuting. "It's a lot cheaper to set them up in their home with all the tools," Drescher says. "The Internet provides the ability to perform the same task that they would at a bricks-and-mortar location."

For families, the current housing market raises complex questions. "It's not as simple as, 'Hey, honey, I have a new job, we need to move,' " says Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of Yoh, an outsourcing firm in Philadelphia. "Now you have to evaluate whether it's worthwhile to make the change."

He calls the current slump "unprecedented" and "nondiscriminatory," because it stretches across the country. Previous slumps were more regional, he says.

Some transferred homeowners are taking a wait-and-see approach by renting. Drew Marich, general manager of rent.com, notes that traffic on his apartment-rental site is up more than 20 percent from last year. He has rented out his own home near San Francisco and is renting a home in Los Angeles. A friend of his plans to sell his home in San Francisco and rent in Palo Alto, Calif., where he's taken a new job. His employer will subsidize the rent.

"It just doesn't seem like a good time to take a risky bet," Mr. Marich says.

Family concerns are No. 1

Despite these challenges, housing is not the top concern in a move. "The No. 1 reason employees turn down an opportunity to move is because of family," says Cris Collie, executive vice president of Worldwide ERC, an employee relocation council in Washington, D.C.

Sometimes family reasons also help to propel a move back. Two years ago, Jeff Sinatra moved from Boston to Detroit to start a new job with a financial services company. Assuming his family would be putting down long-term roots, he and his wife bought a suburban Colonial and settled in.

But before long Mr. Sinatra realized that all was not well with the job. "The owner misrepresented himself and the opportunity," he says. Most of the management team ended up leaving.

Now, as Sinatra considers his next career step, he and his wife want to return to Boston, where their families live. But because of massive layoffs in the auto industry in the past year, the Detroit housing market is flooded with "For Sale" signs. "We'll either rent our house or foreclose, because we can't sell it," Sinatra says.

He remains philosophical and optimistic, saying, "I've learned a lot of good lessons."

For Greenish and his family, their failed attempt to sell their house had a happy ending. They took their house off the market, and he was able to return to his former position at Conceive magazine.

"It was the best decision," he says. "In some ways it was good that we tried to move, because it reaffirmed that we like where we are. We put a foot over the fence, and the grass wasn't entirely greener."

Kim Hahn, CEO of the multimedia company in Orlando that publishes Conceive, was glad to hire Greenish back when he decided not to relocate to Charlotte. But she urges employers to do everything they can to make a move possible.

"Employees are your greatest asset," she says. "I would not let an employee go because of their inability to sell their house. I would get them a laptop and get them set up at home until they could relocate their family. It's not forever that a house won't sell."

David Barlow, senior vice president of Sirva Relocation, sees encouraging signs that businesses, at least those in the Fortune 500, are improving their relocation policies. "More and more companies, in order to get through this real estate downturn, are having to provide a way out for transferees who cannot sell their home," he says.

Marc Freeman, author of "Renegotiate With Integrity," tells those considering a career-related move to weigh all aspects of the deal. If housing is an issue, speak up.

"You have to be completely up front and honest with them, saying, 'I need your help if you want me to relocate. It doesn't make sense for me to make this move if I'm going to lose $30,000 on my house and you're only giving me $20,000 more in salary.' Get the company to say, 'OK, we'll take care of that loss up front.' "

Four questions to ask first

As employees grapple with the pros and cons of moving, Dan Coughlin, an executive coach in St. Louis, emphasizes that the housing market is only one of many variables in the decision. He suggests considering three questions: "What am I changing from, and why? What am I changing to, and why? And how am I going to make that change?"

A final question: "Is the short-term cost of not being able to sell my house worth the longer-term benefit of being able to enhance my career?" He adds, "It's still a risk to change cities to try to enhance your career."

Those who track real estate trends remain optimistic. "The housing market has always come back reasonably strong," says Brian Drum, CEO of Drum Associates, a consulting firm in New York. "In the next couple years it will come back again."

Until then, Mr. Freeman encourages a long-term view: "Sometimes you've just got to take your hit and move on," he says. "If moving on is the best thing to do, then don't look back. Count your blessings for what you have – that you have a job, you're progressing in your career, and somebody wants you enough to move you to a new location. Look at those positive things, grab hold of those, and drop the negatives, because they'll just slow you down."

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