When it comes to buying or selling a home, conventional wisdom dictates that winter is lousy timing. You can't show or see a home at its best when the weather is crummy.
Sellers face a shortage of buyers, and buyers find there aren't enough homes to choose from. Considering that a home is a big piece of your investment portfolio, one would think it's a difficult season to enter the real estate market.
Except that isn't necessarily so.
If a job change or new baby forces you into the real estate market in winter, or that's when the itch to move happens to strike, you may find that conditions aren't as bad as you'd thought -- and there might even be an upside.
Serious buyers, motivated sellers. "There are many benefits to keeping your home on the market during this perceived downtime," says Rhonda Duffy of Duffy Realty of Atlanta. Among the most important, she says, is a fact that distinguishes real estate from almost all other markets: "It only takes one interested buyer, and you might miss the opportunity if you pull the listing during this time of year."
Buyers, too, can benefit from house hunting in winter, when the pace tends to be less frenzied than in spring. It's easier in winter to assess the quality of insulation and heating, or to tell if the basement gets wet or if the home doesn't get enough light. And, of course, the buyer could well find the perfect home in winter even if there are fewer homes on the market.
"With the decrease in competition during the winter, buyers are less likely to end up in a bidding war," says Sharon Voss, president of the Orlando Regional Realtor Association in Florida.
A buyer can benefit from a winter search because it's likely that the seller is eager, says Debbie DiMaggio, a Realtor and author in Piedmont, California. "Typically, when homes are listed between Thanksgiving and the New Year, it signals that the seller needs to sell, and thus the buyer may have more leverage," she says.
For obvious reasons, winter is a bigger negative in the North.
"In New York City and the Northeast, spring still remains the best time for selling your home quickly and for a competitive price," says Sam Heskel, president of Nadlan Valuation, an appraisal firm in Brooklyn. "I see far fewer homes in the winter for several reasons. In the cold, people tend to go out less, and by the time people finish work, it is already dark outside. ... Typically, curb appeal is a lot better on a sunny spring day with green trees and landscaped lawns."
But he does note an upside for sellers: There are fewer tire-kickers in winter, when people don't buy unless they have a compelling reason. "Sellers typically find that off-season buyers may be more focused and ready to buy a home," he says.
Take advantage of the snowbirds. Winter is less of a negative in the South, and can in fact be the best time to buy or sell in winter vacation areas like Florida or the Rockies, DiMaggio says.
"Selling a home during the winter season in Aspen, Vail or Whistler, for example, might be an opportune time, while skiers and snowbirds are on holiday," she says.
Talk to an agent. For sellers, one of the drawbacks to listing in winter is that it is likely to take longer to find a buyer than in spring or summer. Since time-on-the-market data is available to buyers and their real estate agents, a slow pace can suggest there's something wrong with the home or lead buyers to assume the seller must be getting desperate.
To keep this data out of the equation, some winter sellers forgo the standard listing on the multiple listing service, or MLS, opting instead for advertising by word-of-mouth among agents, called a private sale or pocket listing.
"These properties are all technically for sale, but the sellers just don't want them to get stale or promote them too early on the public market," says Tom MacLeod, founder of PocketList, a San Francisco-area service that aggregates these non-MLS offerings.
Because of this, buyers should talk to agents and not limit their searches to websites such as Realtor.com and Zillow.com, which use MLS listings.
Both buyer and seller should make sure to use agents who don't go to Aruba for the winter. That said, many agents are especially attentive in the off-season.
"Real estate agents, who are salespeople, need commissions to feed their families," says Aaron McDaniel, a real estate investor and founder of Access Investors Network, which serves real estate investors. "In the summer, agents tend to juggle more clients and properties, but in winter they will fight harder to get a deal closed."
Interest rate hikes are around the corner. Another reason to consider buying or selling this winter is the series of interest rate hikes the Federal Reserve is expected to start in December. Alhough the pace is likely to be slow, mortgage rates could start drifting up. As a buyer, you wouldn't have as much to spend if rates were higher. That means that as a seller, you might have a hard time getting top dollar.
"The fear of a mortgage rate increase will be one of the biggest drivers of winter purchases this year," says Doug Perlson, founder of RealDirect, a discount real estate brokerage in New York.
Holiday baking. If you're in the North, bare trees and dirty snow will indeed detract from your home's curb appeal, so experts say it's especially important to make the inside as inviting as possible.
Old standards like a roaring fire or the smell of baking cookies can enhance winter appeal. The thermostat should be set at a comfortable level, even if the house is vacant, and the driveway and walkways should be well-shoveled. Your listing should include lots of spring and summer photos. Some tasteful holiday decorating makes sense, too.
"When a potential buyer walks through the door, they will notice the festive, cheery, inviting feeling, which helps them to envision their family in the same space," Duffy says.
But, Perlson says, "decorating for specific holidays is usually a no-no." All that festiveness can backfire if it makes a buyer who doesn't celebrate that holiday feel out of place.
As a buyer, of course, you need to look past these marketing tricks and try to imagine how you would live in the home.
In fact, there's an upside to seeing a property at its winter worst: If you like it then, you're sure to love it in spring, summer and fall.
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