Rapid Price Discovery via Resellers’ Auctions

As a coworker and I were pondering the housing market yesterday, I wondered whether it would be possible to build a computer simulation that would provide a relatively accurate model of a perfectly efficient housing market. Unfortunately we didn’t come up with a good way to do that, but he did suggest a real-world experiment that would help bring about more rapid price discovery in today’s slowly grinding housing market.

Consider the various auctions of new developments that have become commonplace during the long, slow bursting of the housing bubble. Most of the time, each home in the auction has a published minimum bid and an unpublished minimum reserve price (the lowest price the seller is really willing to let the home go for).

What if a real estate brokerage put on a similar auction for a bunch of re-sales? Gather between 50 and 100 sellers from around the region, advertise a big “auction event,” start the bidding on every home at $10,000, and see what happens. Just like the new development auctions, you could have an unpublished minimum reserve price so the homes would not be allowed to sell for less than the mortgage amount or less than the seller is really willing to take.

It seems like an event like that would be the perfect way to find out what homes in an area are really worth in today’s market. No more slowly chasing the market down. No more experimenting with the price. No more “standoffs” between sellers and buyers. Just real market prices.

I think it could totally work. If I had the time and the proper licenses, I would probably organize such an event myself. What do you think? Could a resellers’ auction be an idea whose time has come?

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About The Tim

Tim Ellis is the founder of Seattle Bubble. His background in engineering and computer / internet technology, a fondness of data-based analysis of problems, and an addiction to spreadsheets all influence his perspective on the Seattle-area real estate market. Tim also hosts the weekly improv comedy sci-fi podcast Dispatches from the Multiverse.


  1. 1

    I’m not sure why you think that a method that recovers a lower price is the best way to determine value. If an auction were a good way to determine the value of real estate, you would see more auctions. It’s not like there are legal impediments to people auctioning their property if that’s what they want to do.

  2. 2

    There’s One Major Conundrum Tim

    The banks’ reluctance to let mid 90s and newer contracts go for no profit or a loss. IMO, its not just what the buyer thinks its worth, its also how much it will cost to make it livable, reliable and safe….the banks know exactly what I’m talking about…..and the money you have to pour in to used houses [they all deteriorate] is “money pit” sized unless you sweat labor it yourself.

    Nope, we gave the banks bailouts and now they can sit on the losses longer, instead of selling them at real market value. Of course the new homeowners applaud the stall tactics, they don’t want their loans upside down too, even bought at bargain prices. The banks don’t want a deluge of defaults on mortgages made in the 2000s with a large price dip either. It would bankrupt ’em all.

    Irrespective Tim, its gonna happen sooner or later anyway, IMO. The sooner it happens the less pain were gonna go through.

  3. 3
    Warren Bubble says:

    Sounds interesting though seems like the confounding variable is if bidders are aware that there is a minimum bid at which the unit would not be released/sold, then you’d still get a superficial average. You’d get a self-selected sample because people who knew that their offers may not be accepted would stay away.

  4. 4
    ChrisM says:

    Houses are routinely sold via auction in Australia. I don’t recall if they had a reserve, but I suspect so.

    Lots of farms used to be sold that way, here. I think sellers would need to be reassured, since this is mostly unfamiliar territory for Americans. Maybe e-bay has paved the way?

    As a buyer, I don’t see how the home inspection could be reasonably done, though.

  5. 5
    WestSideBilly says:

    The problem is that for most places, there might only be 2 or 3 interested parties. Of the thousands of houses on the market, there are probably only a few dozen that interest the average buyer (regardless of their price). Sure, they might bid $10k on a condo just to see if they could get it, but that doesn’t really help establish a “real” market price.

  6. 6

    This reminds me a bit of a strategy some short sale agents use. Start at a price and then reduce that price by X dollars every X weeks until someone bites. The problem is, by the time someone does bit the list price is often well below what the bank would accept because the price has gone well below the value. Just because a place has not sold within 2 weeks at a given price, that does not mean that the place was priced too high.

  7. 7
    Lurker says:

    These auctions just seem like they are trying to find potential buyers to trick out of their money by getting them excited with bidding battles. I have absolutely no interest to go to one of these things to spend my time to find out their reserve was insultingly high.

    If you can’t sell your place then the price is not right. LOWER IT. And no more jerking everyone off by lowering it 5 or even 10K. If anyone was remotely interested but it was only 5k too high you would have gotten an offer that represented it.

    However, I understand some people can’t sell for less due to being underwater and their hands are tied. This is a sad arena for both buyers and sellers.

    It’s been a hard morning so I apologize upfront for the rant. :)

  8. 8
    Brian says:

    Forgive me if I’m reading too much into this, but I detect a bit of anti-seller bias on this blog lately. Even for sellers able to sell at buyers’ prices, there’s a hesitancy to close deals by lowering their prices to do so. But is this pure obstinance on the part of sellers? Take the irrational seller argument. As has been suggested, there may be a fair amount of psychology built into the seller’s prices. I think that this means that sellers are simply unwilling to convert a paper loss into a real loss in order to close a deal. I think this is probably true, and it may (occasionally) represent a bit of irrational economic behavior. But isn’t there also a bit of psychology built into the buyer’s price? The irrational seller theory seems to rely on an assumption that buyers are apparently unwilling — but otherwise able — to lessen enough of sellers’ losses in order to close deals. This begs the question: how do we know who is being irrational? It takes two to tango. If a seller is willing and able to hold on to his or her house, it’s not necessarily irrational for the seller to demand a high price in order to sell. After all, isn’t this exactly what the majority of homeowners do all the time by not putting their homes on the market in the first place?

    Of course, the scheme proposed in this blog post might actually be a good way to find out actual market prices. This is essentially a way of discovering if sellers and buyers have overlapping price ranges. In other words, a way of discovering whether the market failures observed are structural or psychological in nature.

  9. 9
    Geek says:

    Fatal flaw: 95% mortgages from 2-4 years ago.

    A good number of the properties I’ve looked at were bought 2-4 years ago (the market is down at least 20% in that time). Apparently, tis better to risk a huge loss later than to take a small one now.

    It’s like this:
    CurrentMe: Ha, future me can go to the gym tomorrow. I’ll just make up for it.
    CM: Dang it Past Me, why did you do that? Now I have to go to the gym.

    Same thing with owners/banks (cuz you know who really takes the hit):
    CurrentOwner/Bank: Hmm I think I’ll be 20k underwater and god, I don’t want to lose 20k! Maybe the market will go back up.
    FutureOwner/Bank. ~ 6 months: I hate myself.

  10. 10
    Gaffer says:

    Imagine an alternate universe where the government acted as if efficient markets were important to the country’s economic well-being. In such a universe, the government would have an incentive to make sure that market prices reflected something close to clearing prices. Promoting regular housing auctions (without reserves) would work to give benchmark pricing against which prevailing market prices could be judged.

    One way the government could promote such auctions would be to subsidize them. For instance, the government could give, say, $8,000, to anybody who sells their house at auction without a reserve. Unlike subsidies that merely promote random home sales, these sales would have a societal benefit of helping promote public price discovery in markets. (Ie., it would be a subsidy that has an actual broad benefit.)

  11. 11
    ChrisM says:

    Also, unless you’re restricting your pool of buyers to cash-only (thereby really dropping the demand), financing becomes a major issue. Somehow financing would have to be pre-arranged. Again, would be interesting to learn the knitty gritty of auctions in Australia.

  12. 12
    2kt says:

    Here’s another one: open online brokerage to sell houses in real time. You can make casino out of just about anything.

  13. 13

    RE: ChrisM @ 9 – Good point on the financing. Do these developer condo auctions have financing pre-arranged, or do they allow time to get financing?

    Another factor would be inspections. I don’t know how many buyers would want to inspect a property they didn’t know for certain they could buy. Without inspections, more uncertainty, lower prices.

  14. 14
    Ahau says:

    I think your plan would fail on account of the financing issues and also because of the sellers, especially in this market. What private individual is going to agree to let an auction determine the sale price of their home? Their only control over the price would be setting the reserve minimum price. So they’d set their reserve at the same price that they’d be willing to list it at with a normal brokerage and hope they could get it. After 10 or 20 auctions in a row that didn’t meet the reserve price, your bidders would stop showing up.

  15. 15
    deejayoh says:

    I think an auction takes away time as a variable for matching supply to demand. You would only get the people who are in the market at that point bidding on the property. A house can be on the market 30/60/90 days and not be all that stale – especially at higher price ranges. So it would give you a clearing price for people intersted that day – but might not be reflective of the true value that the market places on the home

  16. 16
    Marc says:

    I kinda like the idea. You can take care of the financing issue by making all bidders get pre-approved through your preferred lender (which is what they’ve done for the condo auctions) or provide proof of available funds for cash bidders.

    Another problem to overcome is buyer inspections since these would be existing homes rather than brand new units. You address that by hiring an “independent” home inspector to pre-inspect the homes and provide a report available to all bidders (with appropriate legal disclaimers, of course!). Have as many repairs completed as you can get the seller to agree to (before the auction). You might still have to give an inspection contingency to the successful bidder but a decent attorney could draft something to limit the winning bidder’s ability to terminate.

    Don’t let the people on this blog discourage you from an innovative idea. Just because they’re smart enough to stay away from this deal doesn’t mean the general public will. If you run run commercials that scream “bargain, bargain bargain” people will come I remember one company a year or two ago who did a big land auction at the convention center I think. They had TV spots and billboards on buses. They had a huge turn out as I understand it.

  17. 17
    CCG says:

    “No more slowly chasing the market down. No more experimenting with the price. No more “standoffs” between sellers and buyers. Just real market prices.”

    Tim, why do you hate freedom?

  18. 18
    Jason says:

    Couldn’t you just look at sold homes and correlate with time on market?

  19. 19
    mydquin says:

    What an incredibly bad idea. Homes are not commodities. Auctions are terrible when significant information asymmetries exist. On top of that, real estate markets are subject to significant small numbers problems. Tim, you are truly a freshwater Frankenstein.

  20. 20
    Pegasus says:

    RE: mydquin @ 18 – So attempts to keep inflated real estate prices from dropping by your government, the FED and your crooked politicians and corporations is OK with you? Why is that? Why are all the rotten assets slowly being transferred from the banks to the backs of the taxpayers ala the FED, US Treasury, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the FDIC, etc? Could it be they are just kicking the can down the road to avoid being ousted and losing their power and over-priced assets? Me thinks so…. as do many others.

  21. 21

    Freshwater Frankenstein?

  22. 22

    By Pegasus @ 19:

    RE: mydquin @ 18 – So attempts to keep inflated real estate prices from dropping by your government, the FED and your crooked politicians and corporations is OK with you? Why is that?.

    I don’t think he’s saying that. He’s just saying auctions don’t work well with houses.

    But, anyone here who thinks it’s a good idea is free to auction their house if they happen to own one and want to sell it. Somehow I doubt there will be many going that route unless perhaps they don’t care what they obtain and just want a quick result.

  23. 23
    Pegasus says:

    RE: Kary L. Krismer @ 21 – More real estate propaganda Kary? If we had more auctions real estate would become more liquid… a much needed avenue to clear the market. You might not like the outcome seeing real estate fall to reasonable prices and all those lost real estate commissions along the way but those prices will come down either in a free market or much slower with government intervention along with those who have a vested interest in not seeing them fall. It will happen sooner or later. Sooner is better Kary. Deal with the reality. Artificial intervention only costs more and delays the inevitable. Interest rates on mortgages will be below 4 percent soon as I predicted here several times. Welcome to Japan.

  24. 24
    One Eyed Man says:

    Maybe I’m a little conservative with my money but I’m not going to an auction and bidding on a house unless I’ve been in it multiple times, I’ve reviewed all the title documents including the CC&R’s and know for sure its what I want, and more important, what my wife wants. And that’s assuming that the auction will be subject to an inspection contingency and I can kill the deal if I don’t like the inspection results.

    As a practical matter, I’m probably going to decrease what I would bid to include a risk premium unless I’ve had a sufficient period of time to do my due dilligence and to allow my wife to form a rational rather than purely an emotional decision.

    And if its a great house and there are other serious bidders, I’m suddenly in one of the worst situations a buyer can be in, a bidding war. And I can’t stop the action and talk it over with my wife when they get close to the number we had in mind. You don’t get time to sit down and fully consider whether or not this particular house is worth 25K or 50K more to you than you first thought.

    It might be OK if I’m buying a small investment property that just has to be good enough to meet my revenue projections, but I wouldn’t go to an auction where my wife needed to rationally decide whether to up our bid from 700K to 750 in about 15 seconds. It’s hard enough if you’ve got a few days to discuss it and talk it over.

  25. 25
    David Losh says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned, this has been done a few times. James G Murphy has Real Estate auctions, and has had for decades. There are also roving bands of auctioneers who come in for events to auction properties.

    Any one is allowed to do it. You open the houses before hand, get the inspections, get the financing, and open bids.

    The government used to do it with HUD houses all the time.

    I think the problem today is that Real Estate is still front page news. In time people will realize it’s time to dump whatever is holding them back from wealth.

  26. 26
    MacroInvestor says:

    Auctions work with paper securities generally for the following reasons. Bid and offer volume is very deep. Most value data is public knowledge (at least it’s supposed to be). The property and the payments are both essentially in escrow — neither can back out once they reach agreement. There is no double secret reserve, and no dictator/banker who can squash the deal at the last minute.

    Real estate auctions could work if these same issues are addressed. Increase the volume of bids by advertising nationally or even globally. The web does that easily. Make data public by publishing inspections and title reports at no cost. Have the auction at least 60 days in the future with frequent open houses so bidders have time to do their due diligence. Have everything escrowed with no weasel clauses. No hidden reserves and bank pre-approval if it’s a short sale.

    IMO, that is how it could work. At first it would be chaos. But once everyone got used to it, there would be more efficient pricing and less of the endless game playing, fraud and procrastination that defines today’s “modern” real estate industry.

  27. 27
    MacroInvestor says:

    RE: David Losh @ 25

    “I think the problem today is that Real Estate is still front page news. In time people will realize it’s time to dump whatever is holding them back from wealth.”

    You sound like the “500 realty” guy now. Are you suggesting everyone walk away and mail in their keys?

  28. 28
    Gaffer says:

    RE: One Eyed Man @ 24 – Auctions need not be the 15-second decisions that you see in the movies. It would be perfectly reasonable to have an on-line auction that stays open to new bids for a set time (an hour?) after a new high bid before closing the auction. So long as the bid increment is sufficiently high the bidding will end before an unreasonable length of time. It’s in the seller’s best interests to get more bids, and it’s in the buyer’s interests to have sufficient time to make decisions thoughtfully.

  29. 29

    RE: David Losh @ 25 – I only know of one none-distress auction (don’t remember the company that did it), and it was a fail. It was a high end property.

  30. 30
    One Eyed Man says:

    RE: Gaffer @ 28

    Good point. It probably is possible to construct a much more participant friendly environment than what I’m used to. The only real estate auctions I’ve every been to were trustee’s sales outside the court house. I was the the trustee and the auction was over in about 2 minutes. All but the last 10 seconds was me reading a prepared script with no audience. Any rational person walking by would have viewed it as two minutes of theatre of the absurd. If I had put a hat on the ground with a couple of bucks in it I probably could have made a little money on the side.

  31. 31
    Hugh Dominic says:

    I think this would be a cool idea, if everyone did it. If one or two houses go to auction, then I think you won’t draw enough people and there will be too many people not accustomed to the method – it fails.

    But if the accepted practice were more like this:

    – 30-60 day showing periods precede the auctions.
    – People who intend to bid can supply the seller with important information prior. (Credit-worthiness, a sob story, whatever)
    – City-wide auction days take place every Saturday (or whatever)
    – All houses scheduled for auction that day take first offer at 9 AM.
    – Sellers review each new offer in real time and have up to 1 hour to determine if they consider it “acceptable”, and in case an offer is already in place, “superior”. (Price is not the only factor of an offer)
    – Auction closes if no new offer is submitted after 1 hour. Each new offer extends the window by 1 hour, if deemed superior to the preceding one.
    – Afterwards, the property goes STI if this was part of the offer’s terms.

    This would be a real help for me. I’m often travelling and miss opportunities to make offers. And I don’t like to rush the paperwork. And sometimes I’m interested in more than one house, depending on the price. The existing system is too much hassle, too many unknowns, and time and first-paper is WAY too big a factor in the existing model.

    Like I said though, this would have to be a pretty big movement to make it work.

  32. 32
    David Losh says:

    RE: MacroInvestor @ 27

    What I have been saying for five years now is to get rid of it. If you sell today you will get more than if you sell tomorrow, or next month, or next year.

    Unless you have developed a business plan for your Real Estate portfolio, get rid of it. Sell now for whatever you can get. If you have to walk away be careful. Do what you have to to pay it off, or pay down the principle balance.

  33. 33
    David Losh says:

    RE: Kary L. Krismer @ 29

    I went to my first Real Estate auction in the 1970s. They were also popular in the 1980s.

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot the Prudential variable listing price promotion in, I think, the late 1990s.

  34. 34
    chuck corrigan says:

    Ebay! Just about everything else is sold there, so why not homes? Set your reserve, and if it’s not met, you simply don’t sell. I agree that some things would need to be hashed out in advance such as open houses, home inspections, etc. Check out the huge volume of cars on Ebay to get an idea of what the future could look like. Bring it on, I say….

  35. 35

    RE: David Losh @ 33 – Are you sure they were non-distressed? I remember a big auction up at Rosario of a lot of parcels that our firm was involved with, but it was bankruptcy related. A buyer might not have even realized it–I’m not sure if they advertised it as a bankruptcy auction or not.

  36. 36

    RE: chuck corrigan @ 34 – I’ve never understood buying cars on eBay, unless maybe it’s something really rare like a 65 Mustang. Then again, I’ve never really understood buying anything on eBay. Before eBay the stuff was called used junk. I like the idea the stuff now gets recycled, I just don’t want to be the participant on the buyer side.

  37. 37

    RE: Kary L. Krismer @ 36
    There’s a lot of real estate for sale on ebay. Mostly vacant land.
    I purchased a car on ebay. The State of Washington lists their surplus cars on ebay, and you’re not buying them sight unseen. You can go to their facility in Auburn and check them out before deciding to bid. They don’t have any ’65 Mustangs. But they typically have a lot of fairly low mileage boring sedans. Don’t you want to drive by and have people mutter “Bureaucrat”?

  38. 38
    David Losh says:

    RE: Kary L. Krismer @ 35

    Very positive. The Rosario auction was a little different by being the same owner in an appreciating market place, and yes, I think every one involved knew it was a liquidation.

    I just went to get a cup of coffee and realized the big difference between then, and today is the price point. Back then houses were like $60K, or $80K, maybe $125K, probably a lot less. My first house was $35K. Mortgages companies were owned by people you could meet with.

    So the mortgage company would have control over all these properties. The Notes had been sold, and the investors wanted to get as much as they could. It was all very transparent.

    There would be maybe thirty houses that would be held open for a couple of weeks, some would sell, and some would go to the auction.

  39. 39

    RE: David Losh @ 38 – I just wish I’d been able to go up there and watch the auction, get a free room for doing so, etc. ;-)

  40. 40
    David Losh says:

    RE: David Losh @ 38

    I tried to edit that comment, but couldn’t.

    Mortgage companies were the drivers at auction, but any one could participate. These were usually nicer homes so it brought a better class of bidders. If you had a home on the 13th green in Renton the auction may be a good way to get exposure.

  41. 41
    David Losh says:

    RE: Kary L. Krismer @ 39

    For some reason I remember an indoor spa room with a lap pool at Rosario Resort. It was when they were trying to figure out what to do with the place. I thought parceling it out was a good idea, but who ever we were with was talking about keeping it all together.

    Alright, this is a good example of maintaining a property. They had a couple of yahoos, I think in those carts meter people use, maintaining that place for years. There was no way for them to keep up. Eventually they looked to outside investors.

    They could have, in my remembrances, given free rent, or made some deals, to keep the thing functioning, maybe improved it.

  42. 42
    Scotsman says:

    Reading through this for the first time I’m struck by two impressions. First, real estate prices are still too high and many don’t want to acknowledge it, or have the situation become more exposed than it already is. And second, lots of people are unfamiliar with all of the various auction formats and requirements out there.

    Inspections can be done by a certified service and be made available to all by the auction company. Financing can be in place. The time frame can be extended. The are plenty of solutions if people want them.

    I’ve bought various kinds of salvage for years and can say that the auctions are very efficient at getting full true value. There rarely any real deals to be had in the sense that one can beat the market. But you rarely have to overpay to get what you want. I don’t see why this couldn’t be made to work very well for houses once buyers and sellers were educated and the needed system and standards set up. The 6% crowd would be toast though.

  43. 43

    RE: Scotsman @ 42 – Only a complete fool would rely on an inspection done by the seller. IMHO, a seller conducting an inspection isn’t a very good idea for them either.

  44. 44
    Scotsman says:

    RE: Kary L. Krismer @ 43
    Not done by the seller/owner, but by the auction service which also has a responsibility to accurately represent their “product.” It’s successfully done all the time in equipment auctions. You can always do your own if you want and given the extended time lines, usually several months, it isn’t hard to get one scheduled.
    Auctions would probably work very well, especially once homes are viewed more as. . homes, and not a pathway to riches. But it would be a big change and take time to become viewed as an acceptable alternative.

  45. 45
    David Losh says:

    RE: Scotsman @ 42

    The 6% crowd love the auction. It’s quick, and easy money.

    There was some concern about agents who brought multiple buyers, even if the buyers were looking at different properties. You never know what some one will want once they are there.

  46. 46
    One Eyed Man says:

    RE: Scotsman @ 44

    It’s true that its probably possible to construct an auction format for real estate that may remove most if not all of the distress sale limitations to a buyer’s completion of their due dilligence. But if you’re going to allow an extended period for the auction sale process, what’s the point. For all practical purposes, the current system is an “auction.” Bidding starts when the property goes on the market. The substantive difference proposed by the “price discovery” advocates is that they want to place a time limit on how long bidding is open so that they can get a price quickly. That’s not necessarily in the sellers best interest.

    If the seller wants to get quick bids from buyers, they can probably do that under the MLS format. (I acknowledge that it would probably take an attorney as agents probably lack the authority and imagination.) During the bubble, many sellers expected multiple offers within a week and set an arbitrary time period for the review of all offers. And even in the current market, a seller can set a low listing price similar to a minimum bid price with a review of all offers after a limited time. Of course the seller would have to be smart enough to modify the listing agreement to provide that a commission won’t be earned unless there is a sale at a price similar to a “reserve price” rather than being earned upon procuring a willing and able buyer at the listing price.

    But in general, there’s no advantage for a seller to sell in an auction format except to clear their inventory in an arbrarily defined time which could result in a lower price due to limit exposure to potential buyers. The only advantage I can think of is to hope for a bidding war where there is a substantial buyer pool and buyers decisions become clouded by emotion.

    And Deejayoh is definitely right as to high end real estate. The market’s usually too thin for a seller to rely on anything that doesn’t expose the property to the market for an extended period.

  47. 47
    One Eyed Man says:

    There’s probably a more efficient market system for real estate than our current system. But this discussion of auctions is kind of a red herring. Any market participant can get almost immediate “price discovery” for a particular piece of real estate. All they have to do is make an offer.

    This “price discovery” thru auctions issue is for academics and experts who want more immediate data for their recommendations and predictions. If you’re just carrying a score card and aren’t interested in a particular house, you’ll have to wait to find out the score until a deal records. If you want to play, step up to the plate and make an offer to buy or sell. That’s how market participants create price discovery. You don’t need an auction format (or necessarily a real estate broker) to do it.

    As for ebay, its an online flea market and might not be the best model for “price discovery.” Sometimes you need to see things up close or perhaps try them on. That down comforter looks so warm and snuggly in the picture, but what’s it really worth if the cat piss smell never comes out? Not so warm and snuggly now is it.

  48. 48
    chuck corrigan says:

    Ebay oceanfront SFH:


    I’m not saying this is an ideal way to sell property, I’m simply pointing out that it’s yet another alternative to the traditional way to buy/sell a home. As with anything, the buyer would need to be aware of the rules of the game and the potential pitfalls, of which there are likely many.

    And just for fun (I’ve never seen anything like this at a flea market):


    Hope everyone is having a great holiday weekend…

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