Buying a home during off-season is a smart move


October 27, 1991|By ELLEN JAMES MARTIN

Once the turkey is set out on the Thanksgiving table, most people set aside thoughts of buying a home until after Christmas or Hanukkah. They're busy with shopping or family gatherings, and they reckon home sellers don't want to be bothered, either.

But home shopping during the holiday season could be an outstanding idea, real estate specialists advise. Off-season is a good time to get a bargain. And 1991's combination of low mortgage rates, the dearth of buyers, the large number of motivated sellers and the huge inventory of unsold properties should make this holiday season a time of outstanding home buys, they say.

"If you have a dime in your pocket, it's a wonderful time to buy," says Mary Jo Button, sales manager for the Golden Ring office of the Prudential Preferred Properties chain.

Mortgage rates are at their lowest levels since the late 1970s, points out Peter G. Miller, the Silver Spring-based author of the HarperCollins book "Inside the Real Estate Deal." This year, you don't have to resort to an adjustable-rate mortgage or some gimmicky financing to get an excellent mortgage rate. One of those wonderfully predictable fixed-rate mortgages can be had in the 8 percent to 9 percent range.

"With the low rates, we ought to have armies of buyers out there, but we don't," Mr. Miller observes.

Lingering problems in the economy -- especially fears and realities related to layoffs -- have kept many would-be buyers from moving into the market and kept home prices from jumping the way they usually do when rates fall, Mr. Miller says.

"What happens is that the general public listen to the media, read the gloom and doom and share the fear, regardless of their personal circumstances," says Ms. Button, the Golden Ring-area sales manager.

This year the number of homes with "For Sale" signs is enormous, says Lois Clinton, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Realtors. The supply of resale homes on the U.S. market in August (the last month for which statistics are available) exceeded 2 million units. That's more than double the number on sale at any one time during the late 1980s, Ms. Clinton says.

Keep in mind that even in the best of economic times, most

people don't voluntarily sell their homes during the winter holiday season. It's not only that they're preoccupied with holiday rituals. They (like many buyers) are reluctant to move in the winter -- especially if moving would mean their children have to change schools. Most people trying to sell homes during the fourth quarter of this year are highly motivated sellers who are forced to unload because of a job transfer, job loss or some other compelling circumstance.

"They have strong reasons for wanting to move. And generally JTC people who have a reason for wanting to move are more realistic about their property and their price. They're not just seeing if they can do a get-rich-quick sale," says Robert Fisher, president of RE/MAX International, a realty chain with offices throughout

Maryland. The combination of motivated sellers and a shortage of home shoppers add up to an outstanding buyers' market late this year, realty specialists say.

Buyers' market or not, however, no one suggests you buy a home if your personal finances are shaky. Obviously, if someone in your household has lost his job or fears that could happen, it's not a good time to buy. It could also be a poor time to buy if you're convinced that selling a home you already own would come at a great sacrifice.

But if your hesitance about buying this winter is based solely on some vague feeling that the economy is bad, or the notion that you're too busy to think about home buying, you may be making a mistake that costs you thousands of dollars.

Of course, neighborhoods differ. You must assess price trends in the community where you intend to live and stay attuned to local economic changes, such as the threatened closing of a nearby company. No one can give you a guarantee, so make your own conclusions about the trend in home values where you've focused your search.

For those interested in running against the pack and buying a home this holiday season, real estate experts offer these pointers:

* Stay flexible in terms of when you seek to see a home.

"A buyer has to understand there are many personal and private agendas that go on during the holiday season. They may not be able to get a showing any time they want," says Mr. Fisher of RE/MAX International.

If Thanksgiving is just two days off and the seller of the cedar contemporary you're eyeing has in-laws sleeping on the sofa bed in the living room, you can imagine his reluctance to show the place. Why not wait until the day after Thanksgiving when the relatives have packed up and gone? The seller will undoubtedly remember your patience when it comes time to strike a deal.

* Don't assume that a seller slow to respond to an offer during a holiday period is not motivated to deal.

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