Behavioral economics meister and Nobel Prize economist Robert Shiller talks about Animal Spirits.

It's what dreams are made of, and often, it's what the American Dream is made of, too: Fear.

In the field, sales associates and market analysts keep looking for that certain-something--urgency--that real estate folks may have difficulty defining, but they know it if and when they see it. It's the force inside a household that triggers the feeling of a need for change.

  • I am afraid my rent's going to go up again, and make it difficult to save money.
  • I am afraid interest rates are headed up, and they're likely to stay there for a while so Uncle Sam can reduce its balance sheet.
  • I'm afraid home prices are going to spike.
  • I'm afraid to miss this cycle of probably the best time in a generation to buy a home. So, I'm afraid I'll look like an idiot if I didn't buy while I could.
  • I'm afraid we're not going to have incomes much better than now, and that if one of us gets a better job offer somewhere else, that only means my significant other also needs to find work in the new market as well.
  • I'm afraid that if I miss this cycle, I won't be able to avail of the next downturn, where the opportunity to trade up will allow some to step up, while I'll be stuck at the lower rungs of the ladder.
  • Mostly, I'm afraid of being stuck in this dilemma-cycle, year-after-year, wondering whether now is the time or not.

When Nobel Economist Robert Shiller talks about "Animal Spirits" and their effect on economies, he's speaking often of fears, and greed, and exuberance that take place at a household level, but which roll-up into major waves of economic activity, as if the collective has a single motivating rationale. Shiller's a keen observer of housing economy trends, but when he's asked to guess what's going to happen next in the current cycle, his response is often a shrug. He honestly doesn't know, and he'll tell you that anybody who says they do know is being dishonest.

What he does know is that fear is a motivator. It can spark the kind of urgency housing market pros say they're looking for in the market right now, and it can turn inertial gravity into a galvanizing force in short order. Thing is, people who are "driven" by these fears rarely say it, almost never show it, and mostly don't even know it.

What we'd guess is that fear has begun to work on households, mostly that fear of missing something that might not come around again for a long, long time, and now it looks like it's really going to go away for real--interest rates, house prices, and some form of household formation biological clock all seem to be ticking towards a tipping point.

All this is by way of saying- -as I'm sure you already know, and are far ahead of me--understand what's motivating your customer. If you know that at least some of the folks trolling through your model park are being sparked--possibly unawares--by fear, it's helpful for you to understand that.

Especially as regards options, upgrades, and the tyranny of variations that can turn a fear-driven prospect into a lost cause if he, she, or they are overwhelmed by selections. So the ideas in this piece about choice and anticipatory design may be of help.

When it comes to the biggest ticket consumer durable most of us ever acquire, fear is probably the most common source of urgency. And, since interest rates, home prices, loan access, and family life-stage changes are all in convergence for a final fleeting moment, fear of missing the moment may be a reason for an increased number of reports on the "return of the first-time buyer."