It didn’t matter if the buyers were international, institutional, public, or private. The “buyer” wasn’t purchasing nearly as many apartments in the first quarter of 2009. Overall, multifamily real estate acquisitions fell 86.5 percent, from $13.3 billion in the first quarter of 2008 to $1.8 billion in the first quarter of 2009, according to Real Capital Analytics, a New York-based real estate research firm.

Some buyers outright disappeared in the first quarter: REITs and institutional players spent $0. REITs focused on pushing back maturities or are waiting for distressed assets to hit the market. Institutions are holding, also. “Their advisors say, ‘Please don’t put our money in any deal where the principal could be eroded over the next six or eight months,’” says Linwood Thompson, a managing director at Encino, Calif.-based brokerage firm Marcus & Millichap. “That could happen if cap rates go up or fundamentals worsen. So if you’re under instructions not to put money in the market right now, you won’t.”

Purchases by equity funds in the first quarter fell dramatically as well from a year earlier, dropping from $1.6 billion to $114.2 million; international buyers saw the same volume drop off, from $291 million to $48.9 million. In fact, the only group that spent more than $1 billion in the first quarter was private buyers. That doesn’t surprise Thompson.

“If I’m a private buyer with an eight- to 10-year holding pattern, and I’m planning on my grandkids inheriting this property, I’m not as sensitive about operations for the next couple of years,” he says. “If I like the property and location, I won’t be as price-sensitive short term as another investor.”

The only group whose purchases actually increased from the first quarter of ’08 to the first quarter of ’09 was the “unknown” category, comprised almost exclusively of private buyers whose spending increased from $262.9 million to $291.2 million—a small chunk of the volume, to begin with.

Eventually, however, investors will start selling again, says Dan Fasulo, managing director of research for Real Capital. But first the market has to hit bottom. “There are too many unknowns out there,” he says. “That’s why no one is acting.”