Marc Hayes has been in the mortgage business for 19 years, but these days he often feels more like a therapist.
With all the uncertainty in the economy, buyers are looking for reassurance about their home purchases, Hayes says.
"There's a lot more hand-holding - a lot more coaxing," he says.
As another disappointing real estate year nears an end, experts have various theories about what is shaping the mindset of sellers and what is holding back buyers, whether it's gloomy economic news or urban legends about the million-dollar estate to be had for $250,000.
It's hard not to be a little reluctant about making such a large purchase when workers are seeing their 401(k) accounts drop, stocks losing value and companies laying off workers.
"The general buyer is spooked by all of this," Hayes says. "They're standing on the sidelines, when really this is the greatest time to buy a home."
Fear is a powerful emotion, designed to protect people from danger, but the perception of danger is not always an accurate assessment. People hear about trouble with banks securing overnight loans, for example, and assume the difficulty will extend to their own ability to qualify for a mortgage.
But that's not the case, according to Hayes, who says there are loans available for employed buyers with decent credit.
"There's a lot of a fear and ignorance," he says. "I'm doing a lot of re-educating people, even educated agents."
Darrin Watkins knows about real estate fear, both as a buyer and as a seller.
The accountant has had his four-bedroom Colonial in Owings Mills listed for sale since last October. The asking price is down to $605,999, from $649,000 a year ago despite the fact that a similar house across the street sold for $700,000 recently.
One couple came back to see the house three times, but they abruptly decided to not make an offer. It wasn't a coincidence that the economic news at the time was bad and getting worse, Watkins says.
"They really seemed to love it," says Watkins, but then "all of a sudden they wanted to hold off. I think they got spooked."
Watkins' wife had a similar reaction about buying a new house, he says. "She was asking, 'Is it safe? Should we do this?' "
The couple, who have two children, don't have to move for a job. They were only considering a move because, he says, his wife really liked a nearby development - but the community didn't get past the planning stage.
Fearful buyers are not the only reason that some real estate transactions seem stalled.
Experts attribute the situation to sellers who don't want to lose money on homes they bought when prices were high.
"Those sellers are holding out longer," says David B. Sicilia, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who specializes in business history. "No one wants to sell for less than they paid and lose money."
If the owners don't receive a bid near the price they expect or need, they simply take the property off the market.
"If they can't get a certain amount of money, they can't afford to move," says Leah Knoerlein, owner of LT Realty in Perry Hall. "People who want to move up to a bigger house, for example, are saying, If I can't get X, I'll stay put."
Despite the fear of commitment from buyers or fear of losing money by sellers, the real estate picture in Maryland is far better than it is in some parts of the country, including Florida and Arizona, which have been especially hard hit by the roiling housing market.
"This region is buffered against some of the pain on the real estate market, in part, because of the federal workers who live here," Sicilia says. "Government jobs are more recession-proof than those in other fields," he says.
More than stock market prices, interest rates or anything else, employment is the key factor for homebuyers, according to Knoerlein, who was a real estate agent in the early 1980s, when interest rates were as high as 14 percent.
"If people feel secure about their jobs, then they'll think about buying a house," she says. "People aren't going to make a move, especially to a larger house or into their first house, if they're worried about their job."
Sicilia says, "So much about how people behave hinges on their expectations." In the Great Depression, for example, employed people were hoarding money and supplies because they were afraid they might lose their jobs, he says. "And that tends to exacerbate things."
There are upsides to the downturn in the real estate market.
Smart buyers are finding houses in good condition at good prices, says Knoerlein. "They're getting homes that two years ago were $525,000, and they're picking them up for $475,000."
There's also less fear of falling in love with a house and then losing out in a bidding war. At the peak of the real estate market, buyers were competing with other buyers, raising prices with competing bids and making offers without home inspections. The less-frenetic pace of today's market gives buyers more time to find the best house for them, agents say.
"It's more fun now," says Mark Simone, a real estate agent with Yerman, Witman, Gaines & Conklin Realty, LLC. "You can show more than one house. You don't have to rush so much."