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Winter home sales may not always be a chilly proposition
Buying or selling a home in winter has its own set of challenges. Here's how to get the best deal possible, no matter which side of the transaction you're on. - photo by Jeff Wuorio
For many, selling a home in the summer is as easy as jumping into a refreshing swimming pool. Trying to move that same home in the winter may come off more like trying to muscle through a foot-deep bank of snow.

The winter homebuying market can be challenging on any number of fronts. First and most obvious is the cold weather in much of the country, which can keep would-be shoppers by the woodstove rather than hunting for open houses. Existing home sales in cold weather parts of the country such as the Midwest and Northeast drop significantly during winter months, according to data supplied by the National Association of Realtors. For instance, some 58,000 homes were sold in the Midwest in January 2015 paltry when compared with the 145,000 that moved later in June.

"You can certainly see that home sales dip during the winter months, primarily for two reasons: cold weather, and families are less likely to buy and move into a new house during the school year," said National Association of Realtors Economic Issues Media Manager Adam DeSanctis.

A formula for hunkering down until spring? Not necessarily. Instead, whether buying or selling, it pays to leverage the specifics of the winter season. Heres how:

If youre the seller:

Try looking at certain factors, such as the buyer's motivation, in an entirely different light, suggested Allison Scollar of Meisel Real Estate in New York.

Off-season buyers are the most serious, often looking to buy because they need to, not because they want to, putting the seller in an advantageous position, she said. Fewer listings on the market coupled with demand from motivated buyers translates into maximum profit for sellers.

Even when snow piles up, winter sellers must account for the inevitable first step in marketing a property: curb appeal. First glance factors become all the more important when the weather limits your options. Keep walkways clean and gutters free of oversized icicles. If youve yet to pull down your holiday lights, keep them up a while longer to add color and interest, said Paul Esajian, CFO of CT Homes.

"It shows prospective buyers that the owners take good care of their home and that they enjoy living there," he said. "If nothing else, the lights will help draw attention to the home anything that can draw attention while it's on the market is a plus."

Take steps to make the inside of your home as welcoming and appealing as possible. For starters, have your home heating system inspected and repaired to ensure visitor comfort. Take time to analyze airflow, insulation needs, windows and doors and other aspects of the home that will make a huge difference in both utility bills and comfort level, said Christy Edgar, CEO of @home Real Estate Referrals.

If you have a fireplace, be sure it's clean and have a home fire burning to up the cozy factor, added Cheryl Reed, director of external communications for Angie's List.

Running counter to the coziness is the insular feel of winter, which can become unpleasant in a tightly shuttered home that seems cramped or messy. Clean things up and get rid of clutter to head off any sense of stuffiness or claustrophobia in the home.

In addition to a fireplace, sunlight streaming through windows in winter can be charming but only if the windows are kept clean, said Reed.

And, if youre away from home during the day, consider an automated system to turn on indoor and outdoor lighting once the sun goes down. That way, a chance late afternoon walk through by a prospective buyer isnt undermined by a dark, unwelcoming home.

If youre the buyer:

Those in the market for a wintertime purchase are in many ways in the same boat as the seller limited market, less activity. While that can work for the seller it can also be advantageous to a buyer when negotiating purchase price and other terms.

"When shopping for a home in the off-season, buyers dont face as much competition and are less likely to get into a bidding war," said Brad Chandler of Express Homebuyers. "Buyers who are looking in the winter may find a very motivated seller with lowered expectations and get a great deal."

Before negotiating price, however, experts urge buyers to keep their eyes wide open maybe even more so than in warmer months. With a blanket of snow covering everything, dont be shy about asking whats underneath all the white stuff.

Ask about the condition of the roof, utility lines into the house and other elements that would be readily visible at other times of the year. Look for telltale signs of trouble particularly noticeable in winter. "Trust your nose. Are there air fresheners all around, especially in the basement?" said Chandler. "Or does the basement have a musty smell? If so, be sure to ask your agent to find out from the listing agent whether there have been any issues with water infiltration or an interior flood from cracked pipes or the like that wasn't properly addressed."

No matter how bone chilling the weather, make certain to take a walk around the house to inspect for any possible flaws. If you can spot something amid the snow and the ice leaks or other types of damage investigate further to see if that signals a major problem. Despite the time of year, ask about any summer-specific features such as central air conditioning.

Ask to see a service contract on air conditioning or ask for money in escrow until it can be turned on in the spring, said Kyle Alfriend of the Alfriend Group in Dublin, Ohio. Most AC units can't be inspected during winter temperatures.

Winter can also be the ideal time to evaluate the surrounding neighborhood under challenging conditions. How well do nearby homeowners maintain their property, keeping walkways and driveways cleared and neat? Does the city or town do an adequate job of plowing the streets?

Is the house on a long driveway or on a hill? Whos going to clear that thing of ice and snow? said Reed. And if its a remote area, whats the history of power outages? Is there a generator to get you through those times?

But dont get to the point that dark days of the season or a few flakes of snow on a walkway are a deal killer, cautioned Sharn Kandola of the real estate startup

Imagine the home year around, agreed Alfriend. You are probably seeing it in its worse season, so look past that.
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