BOSTON (MainStreet) -- Among the many possible winter activities, house hunting may not be the first thing that comes to mind.
"People focus on the holidays," says Julie Reynolds, vice president at
, the official Web site of the National Association of Realtors. In November, December, and January -- even October -- the bulk of the activity dies down. It may not become dormant like a lot of trees, but it definitely slows."
The open houses of spring may be long over, but homebuyers can benefit from cold-weather shopping.
Nevertheless, there can be advantages for buyers as demand drops along with the mercury.
According to Reynolds, the traditional homebuying season has run lockstep with school calendars because parents seek to relocate with minimal impact on their children. This has meant that late in the school year, through summer, is peak buying and moving season.
Changing demographics are putting that conventional wisdom to the test.
"The generations are changing and we are seeing millennials come of age, so to speak, and closer to the homebuying age," she says. "The median age of first-time homebuyers currently stands at about 30 and these new, hopeful property owners aren't as locked into traditional, seasonal patterns."
Breaking the mold can prove a valuable bargaining chip for cold-weather homebuyers. Just as warm weather is a boon for sellers, cold air means a buyer's market.
"A serious buyer who has flexibility in their lifestyle or is not moving because of a job that has a firm start date or doesn't have a very specific reason for why they are entering the market can definitely have a nice advantage, due to the pure economics of supply and demand," Reynolds says.
Icy roads and slushy sidewalks are among the wintertime inconveniences deterring potential homebuyers, but fewer rivals vying for a property gives an undeterred winter buyer a competitive advantage.
While much is made of "curb appeal," a winter tour may reveal a less orchestrated look at a property, and a house with trees that glisten with a dusting of snow and flecks of ice may help realize the quaint image a buyer may be looking for.
"In the summer you can't have that fireplace going," Reynolds says of another house feature that might go underappreciated in warmer months. For the buyer, this gives the opportunity to see how a fireplace works and fits within its surroundings. Cold weather also lets them experience firsthand how well (or not) the heating system works and whether there are specific areas within a house that are cold and/or damp.
Getting a good look at a lived-in home away from the spruced-up open houses of spring will give a more realistic view of everything. Is there clutter that couldn't be otherwise stored or scattered outdoors? Are there musty smells that fresh spring scents can no longer mask?
Buyers should be aware that sellers do have a few wintertime tricks up their sleeve.
"A lot of sellers will bake cookies or have hot apple cider on the stove with cinnamon and nutmeg in it," Reynolds says. "Those kinds of winter smells are going to be very pleasing."
Buyers may also need to keep on their toes as deals and counter offers proceed. Most agents with a solid grasp of local home values will probably urge a seller to take a reasonable offer more quickly, given a lack of many other prospects. Be aware that they may, at the urging of homeowners, be even more aggressive in trying to close a deal.
A caveat, however, is that while winter can be a boon to buyers in most of the country, it can work against them in warmer states (Florida, California, etc.) that become even more attractive for snowbirds adding a seasonal home and folks whose relocation is spurred by a search for better weather.
The seasonal impact on home sales is also evolving.
Reynolds says that the advent of mobile technology is turning house hunting into more of a year-round process.
"They have access to
property listings in the palm of their hand and at their fingertips 24/7," she says. "So while we are seeing that sales do wind down more so in the holiday season, in the fourth quarter of the year we have seen interest, searches and engagement on Realtor.com hold strong. People are always looking."
"Yes, interest, inventory and the amount of time properties are on the market dip when we get to the fourth quarter and in the very early stages of the first quarter, but the advent of mobile technology has helped buffer and temper the severe drops that we've seen in the past," she adds.
-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.
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