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Cover story: Making the most of slow sales season

- - Thursday, December 1, 2011

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.

- Garrison Keillor

Many would agree with this quotation because the hustle and bustle of December and January represent the busiest time of the year - professionally and personally - for most people as they rush to complete year-end projects and shop and travel and entertain for the December holidays and New Year's.

But that's not the case for those involved in real estate.

"Between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the slowest time of the year - there are very few home sales," said Jack Shafran, a principal with Yeonas & Shafran Real Estate in McLean. "There are the fewest number of buyers on the market, and the inventory is the lowest."

Glen Harris, owner of Harris Custom Homes in McLean, agreed.

"The bad weather and the holidays themselves make everything slow," he said, adding that he wouldn't show a house the weekend before Christmas or the even the week after Christmas. "Everyone is shopping. I wouldn't show a house until January 15th."

No one wants to move in January and February, Mr. Shafran said.

"The weather is at its worst," he said, explaining that this interferes with the logistics of moving boxes and furniture from one residence to another and also comes in the middle of the school year for those with children.

But if homeowners must put their homes on the market in the winter, their biggest consideration should be price, Mr. Shafran said.

"You must be very competitive with pricing," he said. "It's less of a matter of saying you need to discount 5, 10 or 20 percent, and more about looking at the number of sales in your area within the last month and what they sold for and coming up with a price based on those factors."

Another consideration when putting a home on the market during this time of year is whether to decorate for the holidays. Mr. Harris said he would never decorate his model homes for a particular holiday.

"Christmas comes and goes so quickly from a builder's perspective that there's no real benefit to showcase that," he said, adding that he doesn't think it would be a problem if homeowners decorated for whatever holidays they celebrate.

"In the McLean area, there are a lot of interfaith marriages - people are pretty relaxed about everyone's religion," he said.

Mr. Shafran said he encourages his clients to decorate.

"No matter what festive holiday you celebrate - Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa - decorate the home in the way you normally would," he said. "It feels better; it shows that someone cares about the home and continues to enjoy it. People like that; it demonstrates success and happiness, and people want to feel that and be part of that."

But design specialist Jennifer Powell of New Vision Staging & Design in the District said she discourages holiday decorating because it's important to appeal to the masses.

"You need to be able connect directly with any possible family that is interested in the property," she said. "Associating religion could have a negative impact on a potential buyer."

Ms. Powell said good alternatives for holiday decorations are things like a wreath on the front door; warm colors displayed in pillows, throw blankets or pictures and pleasant aromas throughout the home, such as spiced pumpkin or apple-cinnamon.

Even though Mr. Shafran is a fan of decorating, he said it's important not to go overboard.

"You must be tasteful about it," he said. "Don't have a tree in every room. Have one tree nicely decorated, stockings at the fireplace, some lights - that's it."

Perhaps a bigger question to ask than whether or not to hang stockings at a fireplace is whether or not to light a fire during an open house.

Mr. Harris said that if a house had a wood-burning fireplace, he would not expect a Realtor to take the time to tend to a wood fire.

"They are busy trying to talk to people," he said. "If the house had a gas-log fireplace, I would have that lit. It's easy to turn on and off - just flip a switch - and it creates a warm feeling."

Mr. Shafran agreed.

"If you can easily turn on a gas fireplace, it's great to have that on all the time," he said, adding that he would only recommend lighting a wood fire for a special event.

"If you're going to have a Sunday open house with multiple people coming through, it's nice to have it. It shows that the fireplace works, and you're using the home in the way that it was designed."

Ms. Powell said she recommends that fireplaces be lit for showings.

"A fireplace invites people to gather around and imagine their family making wonderful memories in the home," she said. "Welcoming people into a home that is warm and cozy gives a positive first impression."

That good first impression starts outside, Mr. Shafran said.

"In case of bad weather, shovel the snow and make it easy for people to park and access your property," he said.

Real estate attorney George Yeonas noted that this advice makes sense legally as well.

"As a homeowner, it's your duty to keep your property clear of snow and ice," he said, adding that there is a higher obligation to do this when it comes to business invitees to your property as opposed to friends. "It's even more important to shovel when a contractor is coming over to work on your house versus friends who are stopping over to have a glass of wine."

Even if a homeowner hired a company to clear away snow and ice, he or she would still be liable if someone fell on the property, Mr. Yeonas said.

"You're still on the hook because you're the owner," he said, noting that slip-and-fall protection is pretty standard in most homeowner insurance policies. "If someone were to sue you, it would be on your insurance carrier to fight that claim."

While potential buyers are unlikely to sue homeowners for slipping on snow or ice, they are likely to trudge in the wintry mix of snow, ice and salt. Mr. Shafran said it's fine to leave an extra towel or mat in the foyer with a note asking people please to remove shoes and boots.

"That's true even in good weather when people have freshly steam-cleaned carpets," he said, adding that most people in the D.C. area will show common courtesy in this regard. "People are good about taking off their shoes - they don't mind looking at a home in their stocking feet."

Ms. Powell said she recommends that homeowners leave a typewritten note in a frame with wording along these lines: We kindly request that you remove your shoes so that others may appreciate the home in its best showing condition.

"You may also want to have an alternative such as sterile slippers that they can put over their shoes while viewing the home," Ms. Powell said.

Mr. Shafran noted that this is not the time to be a Scrooge with the heating bill.

"Keep the house warm," he advised. "A lot of people keep the thermostat low, but you want it at it 70 or 72. It makes the house more welcoming."

Also, bear in mind winter's shorter days.

"Don't show a home after 4 p.m.," Mr. Shafran said. "Show in the daylight hours of 10 to 3 because the sun sets at 5 in the winter. Take advantage of the natural light by opening blinds and curtains."

Homes in the wintertime can also seem unnaturally quiet.

"In the summer, the windows are open and you can hear birds singing," Mr. Shafran said. "It's very quiet in the winter, so play soft music in the background for ambience."