PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The leaves are dying and crisp breezes are blowing in, but real estate listings are getting some new life as the fall selling season heats up.

Existing home sales are up more than 17% since last year, while the price of those homes has risen 13.5% over the same span, according to the National Association of Realtors. Meanwhile, the backlog of homes on the market has dwindled 5% from a more than six-month supply of 2.4 million in July 2012 to a 5.1-month supply of 2.28 million this summer. As a result, the percentage of "distressed" and foreclosed homes on the market dropped from 24% last year to 15% in July.

"Mortgage interest rates are at the highest level in two years, pushing some buyers off the sidelines," says Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "The initial rise in interest rates provided strong incentive for closing deals. However, further rate increases will diminish the pool of eligible buyers."

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With interest rates on 30-year mortgages rising to 4.37% in July from 3.55% at the same time last year, buyers who've been waiting for the crest of the fledgling housing recovery might be prodded into making a move. With real estate site


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reporting that 23.8% of mortgages are still underwater despite rising prices -- down from 31% last year, but still including nearly 60% of mortgages that exceed the value of their home by 20% or more -- there are still plenty of people looking for a way out.

With help from the National Association of Realtors and Zillow, here are some hints for buying a home in the fall without getting left out in the cold by winter:

1. Treat it like a sale:

If it works for cars and outdoor appliances this time of year, why not houses? According to National Association of Realtors numbers, there's a natural discount of about $7,000 after Labor Day. It's a bit less in the West or in the South, where the "cold" months only increase demand, but Midwest home prices fall by an average of $10,000 between August and September while Northeast prices drop nearly $20,000 by October.

2. Go where the people aren't:

Wouldn't it be great to get a little ski cabin or a sunny place in a warmer climate before the snow comes? Yes, genius, just about everybody gets that idea around this type of year. If your heart is set on a cabin in Snowmass, Colo., or a sweet little condo in San Diego this fall, might we also suggest booking a hotel room in New York City near Rockefeller Center for Christmas or reserving a hotel room on South Beach during Spring Break. Ski resorts, leaf-peeping corridors and just about anywhere warm won't get fall discounts. If you're pining for some lakefront property in Minnesota or really want that bed-and-breakfast on Nantucket, however, the time to act is now. Sellers in the Northeast and Midwest know winter's coming and aren't about to let the salt chomp away at their car for another year. While their sentimentality is on ice, make an offer before they get too warm and fuzzy again.

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3. Have a good memory:

If a house you saw on Memorial Day just listed again with a price drop and new open-house dates, don't just chalk that up to coincidence. Again, home sales and prices have been climbing for the past two years or so, but they're not going to meet everyone's expectations. That gives you a little room to maneuver. There will be homeowners who just want a set price, but there are others who want out before winter hits again and their house is on the market for Year 2. If the sale is more important, they may be willing to come down on the price.

4. Welcome the worst-case scenarios:

You know what you don't get when you're house hunting in summer? Lots of torrential rain, falling leaves and full lawn growth. How much are you going to have to rake for the rest of your life? Do the gutters actually work, or do they need repairs? Does the bottom of the driveway or the backyard turn into a lake? You'll be better able to answer these questions in the fall and, yes, specifically on a rainy day in late September.

5. Remember it could be a lot worse:

The market isn't the only place where homebuyers can get a seasonal discount this time of year. Census Bureau numbers indicate that fall, and September in particular, is a low point for home and garden stores such as

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. If the house listing you love is a kitchen upgrade or central air system away from being a dream home, home stores and builders are discounting their inventory around this time of year and letting a lot of your essentials go cheaply. Then again, if you're buying a plot and building from scratch, those discounts not only add up, but bring in business for a homebuilding industry that's grown 12.9% in construction and 6.8% in sales since last year but is still building just about half the "normal" number of homes it completes in a year.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.