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What You Need to Know About House Hunting in the Off-Season

Kali Geldis

When Jaime Petrasek started looking for a home a year and a half ago, she didn’t think it would take her until November to actually find the perfect home.

“I wish I knew how many homes we saw — I am sure it was over a hundred,” Petrasek says.

After starting her search in 2011 and scouring open houses and showings to find the perfect fit, Jaime and her fiancé had already lost out to other buyers in a very competitive summer housing market in Richmond, Va. So when they saw the home they are currently closing on, they knew it was the one.

“We knew we wanted the house the second we saw it, which was also the very first day the house was being shown after only being on the market for six days,” Petrasek says. “We offered over asking the day after the open house and it was a pretty easy negotiation.”

Knowing the market you’re working in is the key to getting a good deal, which is why it’s important for homebuyers to understand the differences between shopping for a home in the winter, which is generally considered the “off-season” for real estate, and the summer, which is prime home sale time.

We spoke with several real estate agents to give us the scoop on how to shop for a home in the winter off-season and they gave us the essentials that homebuyers need to know.

[Related Article: 10 Mistakes New Homebuyers Make]

Inventory Is Limited…

Many buyers shopping in the winter might be looking forward to a less crowded market of buyers, but what they don’t realize is that the market slump applies to sellers, too.

“When shopping in the summer you may discover a large number of homes in your ideal neighborhood whereas in the winter, not so much,” says Chantay Bridges, senior real estate specialist at Clear-Choice Realty & Associates. “The market tends to be less competitive in the winter because other buyers and sellers are hibernating. Literally, winter months are less competitive yet if you delay for even a few months, you may find yourself in numerous multi-bidding situations.”

Laura Murray, a real estate agent with Weichert Realtors in Maryland, says the winter is slow since families don’t want to switch kids’ schools.

“Most folks with families want to move in the summer months, so the kids are settled for the state of the school year,” she says.

But Agents Aren’t

When Jaime started really pounding the pavement to look for a home, she found her agent gave her equal attention in the summer and the fall, but that isn’t always the case. The busy season for the market also means the busy season for real estate professionals. The opposite can also be true for the winter months, when inventory is low so brokers and agents tend to be less busy.

“As a buyer, this is still a good time to buy!” Bridges says. “Take advantage of the low interest rates, less competition, lender availabilities, limited multi-offer scenarios and Realtors giving you their full attention.”

You Can Be More Aggressive As a Buyer

Murray and Bridges agreed that since winter isn’t seen as an ideal time to buy, it could signal to buyers that the seller might take a lower offer than normal.

“The assumption is made (not always correctly) that if someone is putting a house on the market in the winter there is a compelling reason why they need to sell now,” Murray says.

This could give buyers some leverage to work with. For example, a seller that has to sell soon or face bankruptcy or foreclosure may be willing to negotiate more on price and closing costs.

[Related Article: The New Homebuyer: More Credit Savvy]

Inspections May Not Include the Air Conditioning

Inspectors and appraisers don’t look for different things in the winter months than they do in the summer, so the basics are pretty much covered. But Murray says they may not be able to check one important detail for some buyers.

“There are issues with testing an air conditioning system during the winter months,” she says. “In fact, it is possible to damage a cooling system if it is turned on in the winter. Sometimes sellers are willing to put money into an escrow account to cover problems with the cooling system, which are not uncovered until warmer months.”

If air conditioning is a must-have for you, it would be wise to bring this up with your agent and the seller’s representative also.

Bridges also says shopping in the winter may help you understand how the house holds up in inclement weather.

“When shopping in the winter, you can almost date a house, check it out a little more closely before marrying it,” she says. “You can actually see how the roof performs in the rain, if there are leaks coming inside, if you smell mold and so forth.”

You Will Need Extra Time for Closing

If you’re going from renting to buying, and therefore have a deadline to make a move into a new home, you should take into account the fact that closings take time, and in the winter they take longer.

“The closer you get to major holidays the more folks take off for vacation,” Murray says. “Always allow extra closing time during the holiday season.”

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