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House-hunting in a winter wonderland

Winter is for skiing, drinking a cup of Christmas cheer and warming up by the fire. But what about buying a house?

"It can be challenging buying a property in the winter," says Jim Tramway, who bought a house during the dead of winter in Delhi, Ont.

"We really wanted a piece of property with privacy, which can be harder to evaluate when the leaves are off the trees and you can't tell how much privacy the foliage provides," says Tramway, who asked that his real name not be used. Luckily for him, the sellers had many photos of the property in the summer, which revealed that with the trees in full bloom, they would have the privacy they wanted.

Winter isn't typically a popular time to buy a home. According to one real estate agent, one-third of the homes she sells is during the summer.

"We sell about 650 houses in winter and in the summer we sell about 1,600," says Sylvie Begin, an associate broker with Keller Williams in Ottawa.

Buying a home in the winter may be bucking the trend, but it could also be a smart decision. To find out the good and bad, read on to see if you should start packing while the snow is still falling.

How low can you go?
The single best reason to buy during the cold months is the price. "Looking at a graph over the last five years, the prices in December and January are lower than any other time in the year," says Begin. She says you can expect to pay 4 per cent to 8 per cent less in December than in May.

But one expert says price depends on where you live. "In British Columbia, where the weather is not that severe, you may see a reduction by about 2 per cent, whereas you'll see more (reduction) in Newfoundland, where weather is more of a factor," says Helen Hutton, a senior analyst with the Canada Mortgage and Home Corporation, or CMHC, office in London, Ont. She says she sees prices drop between 2 per cent and 3 per cent in the winter.

And with fewer people buying, that inevitably means less competition when it comes time to put in an offer, says Begin. "You won't often get into a bidding war like you will during the busy summer months."

Easier scheduling
With less home-buying action in the winter, everyone involved in the transaction has more time to devote to you, including movers, real estate agents and lawyers. "You can have a greater flexibility of a possession, a faster possession and the right price," says Begin.

In the summer, the market moves faster and buyers are frantic trying to get everything organized before the closing date. Summer buyers must also reserve movers and lawyers weeks in advance. But with less demand in the winter, it's much easier to schedule everything. That holds true for carpenters and other labourers, too, whose time tends to be less expensive during the winter.

But there's a reason things are less busy -- there are fewer homes to choose from in the winter. Since most sellers favour a summer market, the winter home market is thin at best. And there's more bad news.

Winter hides all
A fresh blanket of snow can mask some nasty surprises come springtime. "You don't know what's under the snow," says Valerie Connell, an agent for Century 21 Acclaim Realty in Greenwood, N.S. "There might be one blade of grass under there."

And on top of that, prospective home buyers can't see the foundation of the house if it's hidden in knee-deep snow. Or, if a roof is covered in snow, there's no way of knowing if the shingles are in good condition. However, if there is no snow on the roof, it can be bad news, too. A clear roof suggests a lot of heat is escaping the house due to poor insulation.

All about atmosphere
But winter can also be a blessing when it comes time to show your house. Leaves from the trees and lush foliage can hide the view of a property. Buyers get a true lay of the land in the winter. "If there's a river, you can see it in the winter," says Connell.

No leaves on the trees can also mean the house is brighter when you show it, which is a great selling feature.

Winter can be downright Norman Rockwell-picture-perfect, creating a perfect allure for your home. With the Christmas lights aglow, some cinnamon incense burning in the hallway and some Bing Crosby playing, home buyers won't want to leave, which could mean a quick sale for you.

Melanie Chambers is a freelance writer based in London, Ontario.

-- Posted: Dec. 23, 2005
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