Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


Are you a wannabe home seller who planned to get your place on the market during the spring-summer selling season but are only now ready to sell? If so, don't despair. It's still very possible to strike a good deal this winter.

Real estate specialists say that although housing cycles are always in flux, there's no one "right" season to sell.

"General economic factors -- like the health of the job market and consumer confidence -- are much more important than seasonal variations in determining how much a home is worth," says Fred Meyer, a veteran real estate broker and appraiser.

While buyers are typically more numerous in the warmer months, sellers are as well -- and that means stiffer competition for your property.

"After nearly 50 years in the real estate field, I'm amazed at how it all seems to even out from one season to the next," says Meyer, who sells property around Harvard University.

Winter home-seekers often tend to be more earnest, according to Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of "Home Buying for Dummies."

"On-the-fence buyers disappear in the winter. Most people making winter moves are doing so for work -- either a job change or transfer. These are very serious, highly motivated buyers," Tyson says.

Here are a few tips for wintertime sellers:

-- Realize that your home's value doesn't depend on the season.

Mary Biathrow, a longtime real estate broker, says the factors that most influence price are independent of time frame. How much you get for your home depends more on the desirability of your neighborhood, the quality of your local schools and the condition of your home.

No matter when they sell, she urges owners to avoid the most common of home-selling pitfalls: pricing on the basis of wishful thinking.

"Too many sellers are in denial about the value of their property. If their house is worth less than before the recession, they don't want to face that fact. Also, many people are in denial about all the repairs their home needs to be ready for sale," says Biathrow, who's affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (

"Nowadays, buyers are educated on price. They spend a lot of time previewing homes online before they even call an agent and to start looking around," Biathrow says.

She says younger buyers are especially tech-savvy and can tell right away if a house is overpriced.

-- Don't worry about moving your kids during the school year.

A common fear of winter movers is that their kids have to make a change during the school year. They fret that their offspring will have a tough time adjusting both in the classroom and on the playground.

But William L. Bainbridge, president of the SchoolMatch Institute, which provides comparative information on public and private schools (, says children who make a mid-school-year change usually fare better than those who move in the summer.

One reason is that mid-year switchers are often showered with attention from teachers and classmates alike. In contrast, those who start a new school in the fall usually receive less academic and social support, says Bainbridge, a professor of education.

"Changing during the school year is a highly exaggerated problem. Kids are very adaptable. Most do just fine in their new schools," he says.

So long as you've picked strong and appropriate schools for your children, he says you needn't worry about a winter transition. The only major exception involves students in high school who are taking challenging pre-college classes, including Advanced Placement (AP) courses. He recommends they wait until the end of a school semester or term to transfer.

-- Remember that the math could work in your favor when trading up.

As the economic recovery continues, home values have already begun rising in many neighborhoods. But if you're living in an area where a housing recovery has yet to take hold, you might be tempted to wait until next spring or beyond, hoping your place might regain the value it lost.

However, Biathrow says this strategy may not be the best approach for sellers who now find themselves in the financial position to move up to a larger or fancier home in the same general area.

The reason has to do with simple math. Assume, for example, that in your neighborhood both starter homes and upper-end properties have lost the same percentage of their value since the recession hit. In that case, the discount you obtain on your trade-up purchase will more than outstrip the cut you take on the home you've sold.

"In a weak market, buyers moving up can do better than sellers moving down," Biathrow says.

-- Go light on the decor if you're selling during the holidays.

Have you decided to take the plunge and sell around the winter holidays? If so, Biathrow recommends you keep your decorations simple.

"Unless your rooms are large, this year you won't want a huge Christmas tree and a lot of bows and boughs everywhere in the house. Too much decor makes a home look overfilled. And no one wants to buy a place that seems crowded," she says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at