Home buying during the holiday season offers benefit

Christmas wreaths blow in the wind outside a Christmas wreaths blow in the wind outside a Home Depot in Carol Stream, Ill. (Nov. 24, 2008) Photo Credit: AP

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The year-end holiday season is a good time for gift-exchanging, entertaining and general merriment. But what about buying a house? Should you try to do that in November or December, too?

If you're not picky about the home you intend to buy, the answer might be yes.

Sellers tend to avoid the end of the year because of the short days, wintry weather and conventional wisdom that says buyers are otherwise occupied, says Tim Deihl, associate broker at Gibson Sotheby's International Realty in Boston. Those who sell at year-end are often under pressure and highly motivated to cut a deal.

"A seller who's looking to move a piece of real estate during the holidays is a seller who needs to sell, because nobody in their right mind would pick that as the most convenient time to list their property," Deihl says.

That's why it might be a smart time to buy: Determined house-hunters can take advantage of sellers' urgency.

The biggest downside is the limited supply of for-sale homes, which occurs mainly because sellers are so uninterested.

If you can't find a home you like, you might be able to tap into homes that aren't on the market, says Ken Pozek, a real estate agent at Keller Williams Realty in Northville, Mich.

One strategy is to research what brokers call "old expires" -- homes that were listed several years ago but weren't sold.

Another approach is for the broker to send letters to homeowners in your preferred neighborhood, trawling for someone willing to sell a home that meets your criteria.

A third technique is to call brokers who sell a lot of homes in your target area and ask about homes that aren't yet listed, but are being prepped for sale and are "coming soon."

Less competition from other buyers might mean you'll be able to negotiate a favorable price. "Those properties oftentimes are priced to sell," Deihl says. "It could be an opportunity to sacrifice a little bit of time during an otherwise very busy time of the year to get a better investment opportunity."

Still, with fewer homes from which to choose, you might have to lower expectations.

"If a house comes up that works for you, it should be a pleasant surprise. I wouldn't set a realistic expectation of finding your dream home during that period," Deihl adds.

One pitfall in year-end house shopping is that homes in cold-weather states might have defects hidden by snow, only to be discovered by thaw in spring.

Photographs of the home taken earlier in the year and a home inspection can help mitigate some of the risk.

Not only sellers and buyers, but also real estate professionals like to take time off from work in November and December. Realtors and mortgage brokers have friends and family, too.

That said, many pros do work during these months, precisely because they know many buyers have vacation time to devote to year-end house hunting, Pozek says.

Either way, it's a good idea to ask your agent what his or her plans are so you won't be caught off guard or left hanging if your calls or emails suddenly aren't answered as quickly as you'd expected.

Individual mortgage brokers also might take some time off at the end of the year. But it would be unusual for a mortgage company or bank to be closed any normal business day other than Thanksgiving, the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day, according to Julie Miller, branch manager at Broadview Mortgage in Tustin, Calif.

"I don't know of any mortgage company or bank that closes for longer than the typical holidays," she says.

If you're a serious buyer, you needn't be shy about intruding into sellers' homes at a time normally reserved for family and friends. If a home is for sale, presumably the owners want sincerely interested buyers to see it.

"If a seller is willing to put their house on the market during the holiday season, they really want buyers to come in," Pozek says. "If there is a for-sale sign, it's a welcome sign."

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