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Cover story: Make home a hot prospect as cold reigns

- - Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tradition and market statistics tell us that homebuyers and sellers are far more active in the spring than in winter, but not everyone thinks it's a bad idea to sell your house in winter. That may be particularly true during the upcoming winter season in the D.C. area, where inventory is increasingly low and many buyers are frustrated with the lack of choice of properties.

"Home sales definitely slow down between Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl, but how much of a lull we experience depends a lot on whether we have a lot of inclement weather," said Andy Alderice, a Realtor with W.C. & A.N. Miller, a Long & Foster Real Estate company in Bethesda. "Some clients consider taking their home off the market during the holidays just because of the inconvenience of having showings at that time of year, especially if they have no immediate need to sell."

Ms. Alderice said that even with fewer homes on the market, there are different pockets and price points: Some homes are selling with multiple offers while others languish on the market for weeks at a time. She said, however, that the Washington area is very transient, with people needing to move into the area at all times of year.

"Buyers who are out in the winter looking tend to be more serious," said Liz Bucuvalas, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Alexandria. "That may be especially true this year because there are so few homes on the market. Buyers are eager to take advantage of low interest rates, too."

Christopher Suranna, a Realtor with Real Living at Home in the District, said most people who put their homes on the market in the winter have a strong reason for selling, such as a job transfer or an estate sale.

"We're lucky in D.C. that we don't usually have a lot of snow, so even though the spring market may be a little better, it's not terrible to try and sell in the winter, Mr. Suranna said. "The important thing is to be aware of your competition."

Mr. Suranna said sellers need to put themselves in the shoes of buyers to understand the market, particularly during a slower sales season like winter. He recommended that sellers in the suburbs take a radius from their home of a half-mile up to as much as three miles and look at all of the comparable homes on the market in that area.

"You don't necessarily just look at homes in your development, because buyers will be looking at everything in your price range," Mr. Suranna said. "If you are selling a two-bedroom, two-bath home and there are 24 other similar homes in your general area, you don't want to be the highest-priced one.

"If you have the highest-priced home, then you'll be number 25 on their list of choices. Buyers naturally want the best house at the lowest price."

Listing agents should follow up on every visitor to the property to get feedback, Mr. Suranna suggested.

"You need to know why someone doesn't like your property, whether it's because they think it's overpriced, it smells funny or it's painted like the inside of a circus tent," he said. "You can take it off the market to fix it, and sometimes it will sell right away when you list it again."

Mr. Suranna said it is even more important to have your home in tip-top condition when you are selling in an offseason.

"As always, a house that looks good and is properly priced will sell quickly," Ms. Bucuvalas said. "Even when the market is more robust, your home still has to look good on the first day it goes on the market. You can't put it on the market and think you're going to paint it in the spring."

Homeowners need to pay careful attention to both the interior and exterior of their home when selling in winter.

"You need to start with a really good fall clean-up after the leaves stop falling," Ms. Alderice said. "You need to trim and edge everything and add a fresh layer of mulch because it's important that your home look neat and clean, especially when you don't have the option of a lot of flowers."

Ms. Bucuvalas said sellers need to make sure they get rid of leftover plants and replace them with seasonal plantings or evergreens.

"People don't expect flowers in winter, but you need to make sure your front door is freshly painted and that you have done everything you can to improve the appearance of your home," she said.

If snow and ice fall, sellers must be vigilant in keeping paths, sidewalks and steps clear for potential buyers.

"A new doormat makes a big difference outside, and then you need another new one inside so that people can wipe their feet before they walk through your house," Mr. Suranna said. "You can also ask people to remove their shoes or supply them with a box of shoe-protector booties near the front door."

One issue that arises from Halloween through New Year's Day is whether to decorate for the holidays.

"It's better to have less than more," Ms. Alderice said. "If you go all-out with decorations, it may be time to tone it down a little because you don't want to overwhelm or offend anyone."

Ms. Alderice said cleaning a home's windows can go a long way to improving its appearance because this will let in more light and make the rooms sparkle.

"I recommend hiring a maid to get into all the nooks and crannies of your house and really make it shine," Mr. Suranna said. "You need to do all the mini-maintenance tasks you can, like caulking the tub and even cleaning out your refrigerator because buyers look there, too."

Because darkness comes earlier in the winter, Mr. Suranna suggested using a timer so the home's interior and exterior lights go on automatically at 5 p.m. If the home is vacant, he suggested investing in some pole lights for rooms without overhead lighting.

"You should have your fireplace cleaned and make sure it doesn't smell," Ms. Alderice said. "And make sure your heat is turned up enough so that buyers aren't freezing when they walk through your home."

While selling a home in winter may be a little more challenging than in the spring, sellers who take extra steps to improve their home's condition and to check out the competition can reap the rewards before spring arrives.