Glenn Crellin, a longtime analyst of the Northwest housing market, tracks the industry's ups and downs with unvarnished facts.
Glenn Crellin figures he got his start as a researcher back in the late 1960s, when he was a high-school debater in rural Iowa.
He’d let the other member of his two-person team do most of the talking, while he dug up the facts and statistics that supported the team’s arguments.
Crellin has devoted most of his professional life to excavating data and trying to make sense of it. Along the way, the straight-shooting economist has become one of the foremost authorities on the Northwest’s residential real-estate scene.
Crellin regularly makes news, or is asked for his take on it. It was front-page stuff, for instance, when he reported last fall that the Housing Affordability Index, a measure he devised decades ago, had risen to a new high in King County, indicating houses now are more affordable than they’ve been in years.
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In recent years, Crellin’s analysis of the residential market often has been at odds with the sunny, there’s-never-been-a-better-time-to-buy pronouncements of some industry leaders. You could say he’s been biting the hand that feeds him — his research is funded by fees collected from brokers.
But Crellin says he’s never taken any heat from them.
“The data is what the data is,” he says. “This industry has been loyal to me, and I want to be loyal to the industry.
“They want good information. If I tell them they can expect smooth sailing when it’s really going to be choppy, that’s not very good guidance.”
Crellin’s base for nearly two decades was Washington State University, where he headed the Washington Center for Real Estate Research. Two months ago, when the center merged with the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington, he relocated from Pullman to Seattle.
He’s circumspect about his loyalties. On the day he sat down to chat with a reporter, Crellin was wearing a new purple sweater.
“Purple has always been one of my favorite colors,” he said, “but I still have plenty of crimson in my closet, too.”
While he may have a new office and title, Crellin says his mission remains the same: to provide the real-estate industry, and the public, with information they can use in the real world.
His current real-estate forecast: Home prices will continue to slip over the next few months as banks work through a big backlog of distressed properties. But the market could stabilize in 2013.
Crellin acknowledges he misjudged the severity of the housing crisis early on. Real-estate blogger Tim Ellis, of Seattlebubble.com, regularly took him to task back then, accusing him of cheerleading for the industry.
“He’s more interested in telling things as they are rather than just giving the industry spin,” Ellis says.
“I really respect him now. I think he’s doing a good job.”
Crellin didn’t always want to be an economist. He grew up around numbers — his father was a federal bank examiner — and enrolled at Drake University in Iowa intending to major in math.
But he says he quickly decided higher, more theoretical mathematics wasn’t much fun, and gravitated toward economics because it was more practical.
After earning a master’s degree at the University of Maryland, Crellin landed a job with the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the government office that estimates the nation’s gross domestic product, trade deficit and other measures of economic health.
He spent three years there, then 14 months consulting. “I was a generalist at that point,” Crellin remembers, but those jobs gave him his first taste of housing research, and he discovered he liked it.
“Real estate is an economic concept that really resonates with people,” he says. “Homeownership is part of the American dream — even now, more so than people think.”
It’s partly about control, he says. “If you want to paint your bedroom purple, you can.”
The National Association of Realtors hired Crellin as a research economist in Washington, D.C., in 1977. Back then there wasn’t as much statistical information available about home sales or other real-estate matters, Crellin says, and during his 16 years at NAR he worked to develop more of it.
At the association he devised the Housing Affordability Index in the early 1980s to illustrate the impact mortgage-interest rates — stratospheric at the time — were having on homeownership.
The index measures affordability by tracking changes in three big variables: family income, interest rates and home prices.
NAR was downsizing in the early 1990s just as Washington State University was looking for someone to head up its nascent real-estate research operation. So Crellin relocated from the Potomac to the Palouse.
Now home is an apartment on Queen Anne — the first time he’s lived in a big city rather than a small town or suburb. But Crellin is no stranger to Seattle; he figures his real-estate work brought him to the city once a month on average during his years in Pullman.
When the Runstad Center’s director, George Rolfe, approached him a year ago about merging the two universities’ real-estate units, Crellin says he was receptive, in part because “it had gotten professionally lonely in Pullman.”
The WSU faculty members who specialized in real-estate had all left and not been replaced, he says. He was spending most of his time teaching, and he enjoyed it, but that meant less time for research.
The move to UW “gave me an opportunity to have colleagues again,” Crellin says.
He plans to do more research on condos and delve into commercial real-estate for the first time. That’s been the Runstad Center’s focus, while Crellin’s work at WSU was almost exclusively residential.
There’s a crying need for better commercial real-estate information, Rolfe says. Most market data — vacancies, rents — come from brokerages and is tailored to their clients. “Some are bullish, some less so,” he says.
Rolfe hopes Crellin can develop authoritative information on the office, retail and industrial real-estate markets, then use it as a tool to help project where the local economy is headed. “Glenn brings us excellent applied research skills,” Rolfe says.
“We need to provide better information to the industry that supports us, so they can make better decisions.”
Seattle land-use economist Matthew Gardner, who has served on the boards of the WSU and UW centers, says the merger is logical and exciting.
“Glenn has provided a very valuable statewide perspective over the years,” he says. “We can look forward to hearing more from him.”
Crellin still is doing some teaching online for WSU as he transitions into his new post. But he’s looking forward to devoting more of his time to research.
And, the digging doesn’t stop when he goes home. One of his hobbies is genealogy.
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org