Real estate cycles are less predictable than in the past. With minute-by-minute alerts on breaking news, homebuyers' moods are now heavily influenced by reporting on key economic indicators, stock market swings and national home sale trends.
"Buyers don't always drill down to see how the national numbers affect their local market. But they're still really affected by them," says Mark Nash, a real estate expert and author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home."
Besides economic reports, there are seasonal influences on buyers that can have a significant impact on home sales, according to Nash.
"In January and February, a lot of people ... are stressed out after dysfunctional family events. They're also unhappy about overspending during the holidays. Because of that, they're not feeling rich—an important factor to consider when you're pricing a home," he says.
Do you plan to put your property on the market early in the first quarter of 2014? If so, Nash urges you to exercise extra care to find an agent who's both plugged into buyers' moods and knowledgeable about your neighborhood.
"You need a peppy person who's enthusiastic even when other people are in the doldrums," he says.
Nash, who entered the real estate field in 1996, says it's customary for many real estate agents to schedule vacations in the first couple months of the year. But he says a wintertime home seller needs an agent who's actively involved in the business during the first quarter.
"You don't want someone who tunes out in winter because they think it's a sleepy time for sales," Nash says.
As a wintertime home seller, you’re entitled to know in advance if an agent you’re considering plans to leave town for vacation while your house is up for sale.
"Don’t pick a skier who’s away a lot during the winter," says Joan McLellan Tayler, a long-time realty company owner.
Finding the ideal listing agent for a winter home sale can be trickier than many sellers imagine. Here are a few pointers:
-- Interview more than one agent before making your selection.
Tayler, the author of several books on real estate, says home sellers should always interview at least three potential listing agents.
Friends and family members are one reliable source for referrals. But Tayler contends your neighbors could be a still better one.
"One way to identify agents who are really active in your community is to search for 'For Sale' signs there, noticing which agents have the most signs. That's a smart way to come up with a short list of candidates who know the best pricing strategy for the area," Tayler says.
She says it's "pointless" to interview agents who aren't familiar with the dynamics of your neighborhood market.
-- Look for an agent who takes a tailored marketing approach.
Tayler says top listing agents realize that every home is unique and should be marketed in accord with its size, condition and special characteristics.
Tailored marketing focuses on the property's location, among other factors.
For example, suppose your property is a cottage tucked away in a remote rural setting. Then you'll want your agent to customize your marketing to ensure that prospective buyers will make the long trek to see the home.
"In this case, a strong listing agent will make the directions to the home super easy to follow. Also, the agent will throw a well-catered 'broker's open house,' inviting all the real estate people from the area and advertising your place as a quiet family retreat where you could grow a big garden," Tayler says.
In contrast, she says a listing agent marketing a city home on a main artery should tailor marketing to include ads promoting its quick access to highways and public transportation, as well as nearby restaurants and cultural amenities.
"When business is slow, the best agents don't cut back on ads. They actually advertise more," Tayler says.
-- Resist hiring a family member or friend as your listing agent.
Those within your immediate circle who work in real estate, including relatives and friends, may be extremely trustworthy. But that alone doesn't make them good candidates to list your home, according to Nash, who warns sellers about the risk of hiring an agent with whom they have close ties.
"When you hire someone close to you and a problem comes up, your whole relationship is at risk of meltdown," Nash says.
Also, he says a friend or relative isn't likely to give you the sort of candid advice you need to ensure that your property is in saleable condition and is priced accurately.
"You don't want an agent who fears insulting you by saying your house is worth less than you think or that it's too loaded with clutter to sell well," Nash says.
-- Find an agent who answers your calls and messages promptly.
Because a real estate agent's career depends heavily on networking, someone with strong communication skills is likely to do a better job than someone who's slow to respond.
How can you tell if an agent is responsive? One clue should come when you leave your first phone message.
"Good agents always carry their cell phones. They're always on duty, prospecting for business. They're foolish if they don't call you back within two hours, or at least have an assistant call back until they're free," Tayler says.
-- Don't hesitate to sell during the winter months.
Though the nation as a whole is in the midst of a real estate recovery, your neighborhood may be an outlier. Perhaps this winter it's held back by short-term factors, such as an imbalance between supply and demand for housing, an element that could give buyers added leverage.
"It takes an especially skillful and proactive agent to market a home in an area where buyers have plenty of choices and can take their time," Tayler says.
It can be tempting for those who'd planned to sell in the winter to postpone until spring when more buyers are searching for property. But Tayler advises against delaying.
"With the right listing agent, the winter can be a superb time to sell. That's because many corporate transferees, who are very serious buyers, are out scouting for a home then. Rather than delay, go out and hit the market hard -- with a bang not a whimper," Tayler says. (To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)