Post-traumatic real estate personalities

Mood of the Market

Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News

Clinical psychologists know that a formerly well and intact psyche can split into multiple personalities under the pressure of a severe childhood trauma.

In patients with dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, the theory is that during intense episodes of trauma, the memory and awareness of the distress are diverted into a new personality, so the original personality can cope.

Wash, rinse, repeat a few times, and you get a fully developed, separate personality that can emerge throughout the rest of the patient’s life when he or she is in stressful situations.

To my mind, economic conditions over the last couple of years have comprised the equivalent of intense, repeated distress for many of the consumers who are actively buying or selling real estate right now — and I’m seeing some definite alter-ego behavior out there, much more than I did before.

Whether it happened to the consumers themselves or to a member of their circle of intimates, job loss, bankruptcy, plummeting property values, falling behind on bills and foreclosure — each of these is a split-worthy stressor — and the lingering fear or dread that one of these might still be around the pike is causing buyers and sellers to operate out of their normal personality almost all the time, but allowing their stressed-out alter ego to take the wheel when their transactions turn stressful.

Most of these stresses that poke a buyer or seller’s alter out of hiding and into plain view involve critical decision-making junctures in the timeline of their home purchase or sale.

Bold buyers who knew the home was theirs the moment they walked in become weak-kneed, namby-pambies wracked with indecision when it’s time to pick an offer price. Now — even the most confident homebuyer can struggle with this (admittedly tough) decision, but those who go from "full speed ahead" to agony and paralysis at the precise moment their bold action is most necessary?

Increasingly, I’m hearing their meek "alters" express a post-traumatic, freezing fear of overextending themselves and ending up like so-and-so they know, who lost their home to foreclosure and now lives in a wreck of an apartment.

Short-sale home sellers who had absolute clarity as to their motivation and urgent timeline for selling get mired in second-guessing hesitance, panic at the finality of their looming decision and anger at what they perceive as the injustice of the situation when they get a lowball offer. "But I paid ‘X’ for it — why should they get it that low?" "Why will the bank let them buy it for that price, but not reduce my principal to that same price?"

Why, indeed.

Decision points like which home to buy, how much to offer and whether to remove contingencies all posit the specter of "no turning back" to a buyer’s mind, prompting them to speculate as to how market-proof their own household economy is as they have flashbacks of friends and family members whose formerly secure worlds were turned topsy-turvy by financial crises.

Even the most weary of house-hunters — the folks who can’t find anything suitable in their price range, the ones who have made offers on umpteen homes, the ones you would think would move the most quickly — can have their alters prodded into plain view by the most bizarre things, like the perfect property! It’s as if the delay in finding a place dims their most ardent, true motivations and has transformed their house hunt into a holding tank where their alter ego(s) incubate, lying in wait to jump out and yell "boo!" when they find their just-right house.

After months of being outbid for appropriate homes and being disgusted by the inappropriate ones they can afford, the buyer finds a home in a subdivision that almost never has listings. The house works, the price works, and there are no other offers.

"Boo!" Out comes the buyer’s naysaying, inner alter — the one I like to call "Le Saboteur." And I think the buyer must give Le Saboteur my direct phone number and e-mail address, because I send the offer over for signature and the next thing I know, I get a call — Le Saboteur using my client’s voice to shoot out a barrage of questions:

  • "Why is it so cheap?"
  • "What’s wrong with it?"
  • "Why are there no other offers?

Note to real estate professionals: Usually sane clients who suddenly start asking lots of unanswerable questions beginning with "why" might be suffering from alter-ego emergence.

The situations most often causing alter emergence for sellers include the decisions as to what price to list their home for sale at, whether to accept an offer, which offer to accept, etc.

Hopeful vs. fearful, bold and "on purpose" vs. hesitant and paralyzed, clear vs. confused — when the recessionary alters emerge, the result is a more or less bloody internal battle between the personalities. Most of the time, the buyer’s true self or seller’s true self wins out and controls their decision-making.

On occasion, though, the distressed alter ego is victorious and manages to botch the transaction, or nearly so. The buyer’s alter causes enough hesitation that another buyer swoops in and gets the property, or bids the price up so that the buyer pays more than they could have with a bold and decisive, timely offer.

The seller’s alter ties the seller up in internal wrangling, "it’s not fair’s" and "whys" so long that the already short-sale-wary buyer moves on to another home.

In the world of abnormal psychology, clinicians treat dissociative personality disorder by trying to rejoin the alter egos into a unified, functioning personality, and by taking steps to relieve the stress of the situation that caused the alters to show up in present time.

For homebuyers and sellers, journaling or holding a clear vision of the life you want "after" the transaction is done, and using that to create written lists of priorities and a written sense of your financial comfort zone while you’re in your right mind allows you to revisit these priorities and manage out-of-control alters, in the event they emerge during your deal.

Staying aware of your role as the ultimate decision-maker at every point, and of which decisions are truly final (vs. those that just open the door to the next phase) can de-stress any given decision point and deactivate alters.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site,


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

Copyright 2010 Tara-Nicholle Nelson