Joe and Debbie Valerio, a couple in their 60s, put their Westport, Connecticut, home of more than 20 years on the market because it was getting too big for them.
When they found a nearby condo they loved, they pounced. That set off a chain reaction allowing Peter and Leah Baiocco, a couple in their 30s, the ability to trade up.
The Baioccos lived a few miles away, contemplating a future move to a bigger home once kids came along. With favorable economic conditions, they jumped at the chance to buy the Valerios' $2.7 million house last April. After renting it out for nearly a year, the Baioccos' starter house in Fairfield, Connecticut is on the market for $739,000.
This seemingly simple sequence of events is still relatively rare in the U.S. housing recovery. Despite an improving economy and rock-bottom rates, inventory of available homes is inconsistent. Anything more than a trickle of listings sends prices down, causing sellers to pull their homes off the market.
Then prices go up again because competition gets fierce, and sellers re-emerge. As a result, a bustle of trade-up activity is expected for this spring's selling season, before conditions change again.
"I think a lot of people have made a lot of money in the stock market the last few years. People who want to enjoy a luxury home, now is the time. Everyone has more cash available to them," says Ken Barber, a real estate agent in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Other positive signs: new single-family housing starts are at a high since 2008, according to the Commerce Department's latest report. Also, fewer homeowners are renting out their homes to delay selling them, down to 35 percent in 2014 from 39 percent in 2013, according to Redfin, a real-estate brokerage.
And more consumers have positive equity. Last spring, 19 percent of homeowners in Redfin markets (such as Atlanta and Philadelphia) had low or negative equity. That was down to 11 percent in November. Nela Richardson, Redfin's chief economist, expects it to hit 8 percent by March 2015.
Even better for buyers, interest rates are near-historic lows below 4 percent.
"The question of staying versus leaving is shifting. For people who were afraid to leave their mortgage because they thought it was the best they're ever going to get, now there is another good mortgage around the corner," Richardson says.
Those trading up in 2015 should hit a sweet spot of selling near the top but not buying at the top, says Margaret Wilcox, an agent from agent in Glastonbury, Connecticut, for William Raveis.
Wilcox says a client couple recently traded up from a $500,000 house to a $1 million home. They did not get quite the price they wanted for the sale of their old home, but they got a discount of nearly $300,000 on their new purchase, Wilcox says.
There are a few red flags for buyers and sellers. Seller confidence is still low, with just 35 percent of sellers thinking now was a good time to sell, versus 48 percent the previous year, according to Redfin.
Keith Jurow, a housing market analyst who writes the Capital Preservation Real Estate Report, is something of a doomsayer and thinks talk of a housing recovery "is phony and only an illusion," he says.
Given the number of mortgages originated between 2004 and 2010, he feels that too many of the people who would like to trade up still have little or no equity in their homes and are not prepared to do a sale below their purchase price. "Unless you bring more cash to the table, you can't trade up," Jurow says.
Also, foreboding makes some people want to act now. They do not want to be the family that missed their chance, adds Bob Walters, chief economist for Quicken Loans. "People won't delay forever," he says.
The Valerios and the Baioccos have only happy thoughts about their real estate choices. They love their new homes. "In our mind, it's the house we're going to be in forever," says Peter Baiocco.