Shattered Dreams

Housing, Moving Industries Struggle to Bounce Back Years After Bubble's Peak

Even in what John Gill likes to call “the crazy days of the early 2000s” -- when home prices were skyrocketing, inventory was low, and the ranks of real estate agents and brokers swelled to an all-time high -- the Washington, D.C.-based realtor still harbored fears about the future.

Some things weren't quite right.

“I'm not going to say I'm Mr. Prognosticator out there, because I think that would be a little smug,” said Gill, a proprietor of H.A. Gill & Sons, a realty firm serving the nation’s capital since 1888. “But I think many people in our business ... thought, starting in the first part of 2004 and then particularly in the first part of 2005, which was our peak year, people were going, 'What is going on here?'

"Those years, I mean, they were an illusion, because so many of the new buyers were not qualified to purchase their properties.”

More than two years have passed since the Great Housing Bubble finally burst, spurring a credit and lending crisis that in turn sparked a full-on recession, the most devastating since the Great Depression. Yet real estate agents like Gill and members of several other industries dependent on the housing market are still feeling the pinch.

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“Everybody’s business is down,” Gill told Fox News. “Real estate drives so many other industries….I recommend several home inspectors in our area, and to a man, every one of them said that their business is down.”

Movers have also been hit hard by the late-decade downturn.

“In 2006, we were at our post-9/11 peak, so business was really booming – and then things dropped off dramatically, right around the end of 2007,” recalled Linda Bauer Darr, president and CEO of the American Moving and Storage Association, the professional moving industry’s national trade association.

Darr estimates the moving industry hemorrhaged about 40 percent of its annual business and shed roughly 20 percent of the jobs it once offered. Federal statistics indicate a similar contraction, suggesting that the transportation sector may have lost up to 300,000 jobs over the last two years.

To survive, especially against an onslaught of college-aged competitors offering lowball prices, premium moving companies learned to make do with less, and to concentrate on core customers. “They had to diversify,” said Darr. “They started to do more in the commercial sector. They started to do more office moving.”

Ironically, as home foreclosures rose and businesses failed, storage and warehousing firms profited, because more individuals and entrepreneurs, while plotting their next moves, needed places to stash their stuff.

According to figures maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 350,000 Americans worked as real-estate brokers and analysts in 2006, a record high; by the end of last year, preliminary tallies show, that number had dwindled below 200,000 for the first time in more than a decade.

The trend lines are the same for other kinds of work that are dependent on the housing market. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that in 2006 nearly 145,000 Americans were employed as mortgage and non-mortgage loan brokers. By the end of last year, just over 60,000 reported earning a living that way – reflecting a workforce that has been reduced by more than 50 percent.

Offices of real estate agents and brokers employed almost 375,000 people in 2006, but only around 284,000 at the end of 2010. Likewise, offices of real estate appraisers employed over 41,000 people in 2006, but only 36,000 as of last December.

Residential construction was among the hardest hit, shedding more than 300,000 jobs since January 2008.

However, the ranks of those who process and clear financial transactions, according to BLS numbers, has actually grown since 2006, although the total is down about 3,000 from the peak of 109,000 in 2007. Analysts say that stability owes to the fact that even in times of recession and credit cutbacks, banks, lawyers and others central to the foreclosure process must continue filing the data and paperwork necessary for such transactions to be processed and cleared.

Darr, of the movers’ association, told Fox News that business started to pick up in the last quarter of 2010, and that she and others in her industry are “optimistic” about the next twelve months.

Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, predicted that foreclosures would remain high, but he sees the entwined job market starting, at last, to produce some positive results for the housing market.

“I anticipate, hopefully, 2 million in job creation this year,” Yun told Fox News. “It's far from being back to normal in the job market, but directional wise it is an improvement….[And] improvement in the job market also provides that potential pent-up demand for home buying.”

James Rosen joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 1999 and is the network’s chief Washington correspondent.