- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

Colder weather and holiday activities tend to put the brakes on real estate deals from November to January. Nevertheless, while real estate agents acknowledge that winter is the slowest time of year for home buying and selling, they advise sellers not to fret.

Even switching back to standard time, which brings on early nightfall, plays a role in keeping some folks from shopping for homes in November and December, says Michelle Vessels of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in College Park.

In the Washington area, the annual sales slump brought an end to a brisk seller’s market of more than three years’ duration that continued to follow annual cycles but did so with record-setting statistics that defied the norm. Sales numbers for existing homes from October through November this year show a growing inventory waiting for contracts.

Industry experts say the market tends to drop off considerably around Thanksgiving and picks up again in late January.

“The market is generally slower at year’s end,” says Carol Harriston of Long & Foster in Silver Spring. “The majority of people who plan to move have either already done so or will do so the following year. The holidays are naturally a time when people are focused on doing other things, like traveling and preparing to spend time with family and friends.”

That doesn’t mean that sales are impossible, however. In fact, some people prefer to buy homes in the wintertime.

Ms. Harriston says many people who sell their homes at the end of the year do so because they don’t have a choice. Often the decision hinges on a new job or job relocation.

Families with children tend to buy and sell in the spring and summer to avoid moving their children to a new school in the middle of the school year, but there are exceptions to this general rule.

Real estate industry insiders interviewed for this article agreed that although the holiday season ushers in a much slower market with its own set of challenges, sellers shouldn’t get discouraged.

“It’s not like all of the buyers fell off a cliff,” says Walter Molony of the National Association of Realtors. “There are still people in the market during this time, just fewer. Some people think it’s a great time to buy or sell.”

Consider the experience of Camilla Mayo. The Bowie resident says her family didn’t have any concerns last year about selling their town home in November.

“Our Realtor said it would sell quickly, and it did,” she says. “We listed on a Wednesday, and there were at least five people who walked through that day.”

Her home sold within one week. The family received four offers.

“That was much faster than I expected,” says Ms. Mayo, who also bucked the trend when she and her husband bought a single-family home in Bowie right before Christmas.

“I think there is probably less competition during the holiday season when buying a home, but I think the price of a home plays a major part in that,” she says. “A smaller town home would sell a lot faster during the holidays than a larger single-family home.”

Patricia Vucich of RE/MAX Realty Services in Bethesda says because inventory is often lower after Thanksgiving than at other times, a new listing will attract attention. “The holidays are as good a time to sell as any,” she says. “Some buyers will be trying to meet an end-of-the year deadline to acquire a new home.”

“Those buyers who are out looking during this time tend to be very serious and highly motivated,” Ms. Harriston says.

For example, industry experts point out that January is the biggest job-transfer month. Having a home on the market at the end of the year can get the attention of transferees who might not want to wait until spring to buy.

Along with transferees, Ms. Harriston says many buyers even view the end of the year as a great time to buy because the inventory tends to move slowly, creating more choices and less competition.

Although real estate traffic generally slows in November, historic trends of extremely slow markets with little activity around the holidays have not held up in recent years because of booming sales, Mr. Molony says.

He points out that it has been much easier to sell around recent holiday seasons because most areas of the country have had more buyers than sellers.

However, now that the market is regaining equilibrium, he says, sellers who have a large markup on their homes may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

“It won’t work, especially when inventory is improving,” Mr. Molony says.

Ms.Vessels agrees.

“Over the last few years, we were extremely fortunate to have a fast-moving market in comparison to what I have seen this year,” she says. “There is more inventory, and the homes are not moving as fast.”

As a result, Ms. Harriston says, sellers need to be careful when it comes to pricing their homes.

“Because you will have fewer buyers looking at your home and since they will have other options, it will be demonstrated if your home is overpriced,” she says.

So how about those holiday decorations? When a home is on the market around the holidays, some sellers may be tempted to go all out to showcase their home, while other folks may choose to ignore the season.

“Some houses look better with holiday decor,” Ms. Vucich says, “but decorations can cut both ways. We don’t want buyers distracted from the house itself. I think many homes benefit from the addition of fresh greens and natural seasonal decorations.”

Real estate agents say to be careful not to overcrowd rooms with decorations because that could distract a buyer from the home’s good features and make spaces feel smaller.

“Keep decorations to a minimum,” Ms. Harriston suggests.

She says wreaths are a welcome addition to a home throughout the year and usually appeal to everyone, especially during the holidays.

“You don’t want to exclude or offend others by the holiday decorations that you choose,” she says.

Ms. Harriston suggests that sellers take advantage of the opportunity to showcase their home with holiday themes but that they should always make sure buyers can see beyond the decor.

Not everyone celebrates the holidays, so Ms. Vessels emphasizes that what matters most is how a home looks inside and outside.

“Curb appeal will bring them in,” she says. “You don’t want a purchaser overlooking your home because they could not look past the leaves all over the yard.”

Ms. Mayo agrees.

“My advice to anyone selling is to keep the lawn free from leaves and declutter so that the home will appear more spacious — and find some kind of way to make the kitchen stand out,” she says.

If snow has fallen, real estate agents say to make sure walkways are cleared and the path to the stairs is free from ice.

With evenings turning colder and darker earlier, Ms. Vessels suggests making sure that the home is well-lighted. Use the fireplace to create a warm and inviting ambience, she says.

So the word for holiday sellers is patience. The “For Sale” signs tend to remain on homes a little longer this time of year.

“The best advice I can give a seller putting his or home on the market right now is clean it up, price it right and hire a good agent,” Ms. Vucich says.

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