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Buyer’s market vs. seller’s market: What’s the difference?

A neighborhood street view
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A neighborhood street view
rawmn/Shutterstock

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The real estate market has two opposing sides: buyers, who want to keep their costs low, and sellers, who want to maximize their profits. Depending on the inventory of available housing, one of those sides might have bigger advantages — and greater bargaining power — than the other. Understanding the difference between a buyer’s market and a seller’s market can be tied back to one of the fundamental laws of economics: supply and demand.

What is a buyer’s market?

When there is a surplus of homes and low demand for them, you’re in a buyer’s market. Prices tend to go down because there’s less competition. Additionally, homes are likely to stay on the market for longer, putting pressure on sellers to make concessions during the negotiation process.

How to navigate a buyer’s market

Depending on which side of the fence you’re on, consider these tips for crafting a strategy in a buyer’s market.

If you’re a seller

Do you absolutely have to sell your place right now? If not, you might want to delay your listing until the market shifts. However, a buyer’s market doesn’t have to mean holding on to your home. Ask your real estate agent to suggest potential improvements and upgrades that might deliver a solid return on your investment. Small steps, such as hiring a home staging service, can make your home stand out. And be sure to think about the best time of the year to sell your home.

If you’re a buyer

Pat yourself on the back — you’ve chosen a good time to buy. Take your time. Since there isn’t as much competition, you don’t need to feel rushed to make an immediate offer. Research comparable properties so you’ll know how to make the right offer. Your agent can help guide you. Even if you can’t get a seller to come down on the price, for example, you may be able to get other benefits, such as repairs and additional contingencies.

What is a seller’s market?

If the supply of homes doesn’t meet the demand from buyers, you’re in a seller’s market. Home prices tend to go up as buyers compete for the few options that are available, and sellers are less likely to make concessions because they may receive multiple offers. Also, homes tend to stay on the market for a shorter amount of time, making it easier for sellers to close and move on.

How to navigate a seller’s market

A seller’s market can feel overwhelming for buyers, and perhaps a bit too tempting for sellers. Follow these tips to make a deal that works for you.

If you’re a seller

You’re still going to want to make your home appealing to buyers, even if the competition isn’t as stiff. “Be diligent about preparing your home for sale,” says Holly Connaker, a real estate agent with Compass in Minnesota. “Just because it is a hot market doesn’t mean you should forsake purging, refreshing and normal maintenance. Buyers notice a lack of attention to details and will wonder what else has been neglected.”

You may be able to price your home on the high side, but it’s important to check comparable properties in your area to ensure you’re not asking for too much. “Don’t get too greedy, because it can backfire on you,” Connaker says. “If you price your home too aggressively for the condition it is in, it may not sell right away. When homes don’t sell quickly, buyers assume something is wrong with the home.”

If you’re a buyer

You may want to consider holding off until the market is more favorable for you. If you don’t have the option to wait, you’ll need to act fast.

“Seller’s markets are easier to manage when a buyer is 100-percent prepared,” says Dylan Lennon, a Realtor with Mosaic Community Lifestyle Realty in Asheville, North Carolina. “This means having a prequalification letter ahead of time if financing is involved, being comfortable with the purchase contract so that it can be signed quickly before an offer is made and knowing what to expect during the home inspection.”

Also, be ready to make an offer that’s higher than the asking price — you can bet other buyers will be doing the same. Just don’t get so caught up in a bidding war that you end up paying more than you can afford (or more than the house is worth). Additionally, be aware that your lender will likely only agree to a loan based on the property’s appraised value; if your offer is higher than that, you’ll need to come up with the difference.

Don’t expect to get many concessions during the negotiation process, either. If something in the home needs to be repaired, you may need to fix it yourself after closing.

The real estate market today

If you’re entering the real estate market in the first half of 2022, welcome to the definition of a seller’s market. Inventory is low — particularly for affordably priced properties — and many sellers have been enjoying bidding wars, waived home inspection contingencies and all-cash offers. In March 2022, more than 50 percent of homes sold for above their asking price, according to data from Redfin. If you’re selling your house, lucky you. If you’re buying a house, well, get ready for a rocky road.

How to determine what’s happening, going forward

Will all of 2022 feel like a seller’s market? It’s impossible to predict, but rising interest rates may be able to bring the housing market back down to earth. Looking ahead, here are some key indicators to help you gauge whether your area is leaning toward a buyer’s market or a seller’s market:

  • Inventory: If you’ve house hunted in the past, compare the current inventory of properties with what you’ve seen before. In general, the more homes that are available, the likelier it is that it’s a buyer’s market. On the flip side, fewer options generally tip the scales in favor of sellers.
  • Recent sales: Take a look at some properties in the area that are comparable to the one you’re hoping to buy or sell. If they sold above asking price, it’s likely a seller’s market. If the price ended up below ask, it’s likely a buyer’s market.
  • Days on market and pricing: The longer a home remains on the market, the more the seller may be willing to do to offload it. If a seller has recently dropped the price of a property comparable to the one you want, it could be a sign of a buyer’s market. The same goes if the price hasn’t budged but the home has been on the market for a while. It’s not uncommon for sellers to ask for more than what the market is willing to pay, so as a buyer, you’ll want to review multiple properties to determine whether it’s a trend or an isolated occurrence.
  • Local market trends: Consider the data and local housing trends. If you notice that prices have increased sharply in recent months, for instance, it could be a sign that you’re in a seller’s market. On the other hand, if prices have remained the same or gone down, buyers may have the upper hand.

Evaluating all of these indicators can be time-consuming, especially if you’re not knowledgeable about the housing market. Your best bet in this case is to consult with a local real estate agent who knows your area. Don’t just follow the national headlines about the overall housing market. Consider this range: According to Redfin, the average home in Denver stays on the market for just five days, while the average home in Cleveland takes more than 30 days to sell.

“Markets are hyperlocal and can vary wildly with price point,” Lennon says. “Buyers should work with a Realtor who has demonstrated selling experience in the price point they’re shopping in.”

Written by
Ben Luthi
Contributing writer
Ben Luthi is a personal finance and travel writer who loves helping people learn how to live life more fully. His work has appeared in several publications, including U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, Yahoo! Finance and more.
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Senior real estate editor