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It's real estate season -- or is it?

It's a rite of spring and early summer in our transient society. From coast to coast, for-sale signs crop up like wildflowers on the lawns of subdivisions. Moving sales proliferate. Moms and dads box up their possessions and ponder what awaits them on a new block or in a new town. Kids finish out semesters, wary that a different school culture and a new set of friends await them in fall.

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It's a time when real estate salespeople get lightheaded from make-hay fever, as buyers and sellers come out in full bloom.

But is it always the best time to buy or sell a house?

That's a definite maybe, say experts. Like most buy-sell situations, it all depends on motivations.

Indeed, April through July outpace the balance of the year in sales, historic data at the National Association of Realtors indicates. So there will surely be more home inventory and variety then. But you better move fast, because that's just what other home hunters are doing.

"It starts building up early in the year but peaks around June," says research economist Jack Harris of the Texas A&M University Real Estate Center. "There's school ending, there's vacation time and the weather is also nicer. It's generally just a good time to get out and look at homes."

Many buyers apply their income tax refunds toward down payments, adding to the spring push.

While the buying frenzy stays steady through most of the summer, it falls in early fall, Harris says. It usually drags for a month or so, then escalates briefly again around October. Some of that second spike is attributed to sellers who were overly optimistic pricers in the spring, but who have grudgingly decided to make concessions in the fall, he added.

Some seasonal house-hunting hints:

  • Be a contrarian. True, there's a greater choice of homes in the spring, but sellers then can better hold to their asking prices because of demand. "If you can stand to be a contrarian, it could pay to wait," says Harris. "Most people don't do that, though. They just get carried along with the crowd." Additionally, when home loans are less in demand, some lenders are willing to forgo certain fees typically charged to win off-peak mortgage customers.
  • Off-season dealing: Sellers in late fall and early winter, especially between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, are often more motivated to deal, real estate agents say. "I've done my best negotiating from October to December," says Jim Crawford, a real estate agent, lecturer and Web consultant in Roswell, Ga. "You don't want lots of people tromping through your home around Christmas time ... so you're more apt to accept an offer."
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