Ask a real estate agent about the best time to buy a home, the answer will inevitably be "Now!"
Why? Because prices are about to go up. They always are "about to" go up.
Interestingly, when it comes to selling your home, you'll get a slightly different response to a question about timing. Maybe the market is soft and you should lower your asking price. Maybe you just missed your window to sell.
So, which is it? The truth may seem complicated, and it can be, because it depends on the real estate market, the time of year, the region, the neighborhood you're buying in, and, of course, the home.
That's a lot of variables, way too many to thoughtfully analyze in a single story, right? Well, no. It turns out that even when you take all of that into account, there are still better and worse times to buy, generally speaking.
There's a simple and reliable way to gauge the market. The Case-Shiller Home Price Index, for example, will tell you where prices are really going. You can drill down by metro area, but for a more detailed view, check out Zillow's market reports. Here's one for my area in Prescott, Ariz. (Uh-oh, better sell the ranch soon.)
Beyond that, there are seasonal variables that even real estate professionals will happily tell you about. Just don't ask them about your house.
Buy when no one else goes shopping "The month of December is the ideal time to purchase a property," says Jeff Miller, co-founder of AE Home Group, a team of local Maryland real estate agents who help buyers and sellers navigate the Baltimore real estate market. "Sellers leave the market in droves when the holiday season comes around. Nobody wants to organize their lives around showings when they're busy preparing for out-of-town family visitors and hosting annual parties." If you're a buyer, you know that someone marketing their home during the holidays is highly motivated, he says. In other words, they're probably more willing to take a lower price, flexible buyer terms, or work on a condensed or extended closing schedule.
Buy during traditional "season" That would be late spring through August in most markets, says Kathryn Bishop, a realtor with Keller Williams in Studio City, Calif. Why? "Because families want to live in a specific neighborhood for the schools," she says. "This time period usually has the most selection." However, by summer the prices also tend to peak. So while you may find an excellent selection, you'll also find the most buyers and highest prices. For a better deal, try shopping for a new home in November, December and January, when school is in session, she says.
Avoid the "mistake" season That would be March and April, say experts. "Spring is when people are out milling around and not necessarily going to buy," says Marcia Goodman, a real estate agent with Samson Properties in Gainesville, Va. "The worst time of the year to buy a house could be spring." Spring is also the season of mistakes, when lenders and title companies are busy. Loan processing takes longer. "Mistakes could happen," she says. Also, you could run into pointless bidding wars, which drive up the prices.
Mind the market (no, not that market) Remember those regional differences I mentioned earlier in this story? Sure, you might have less of a seasonal fluctuation in a warm-weather destination like Florida or Arizona. But you already knew that. You should also pay attention to interest rates. "We never know where rates will be in the future, or where prices will be, or what loan programs will be available," warns Andrew Weinberg, a principal at Silver Fin Capital Group, which handles mortgages. "I have seen borrowers wait and then with rising prices and rates, they no longer qualify for the home and loan program they were interested in. So it is important to take advantage of the mortgage market when you qualify."
He makes a valid point. You can play the real estate market by waiting until January to buy a house, but the best time to buy is when you're ready. Jeff Peterson, a Dallas real estate agent, remembers asking his grandfather which car he should buy when he turned 16. "He said, 'One that runs and is paid for,'" he remembers. He offers the same advice to home buyers. Instead of avoiding spring or waiting until mid-winter, buy when you're ready.
"When you have saved enough money for your down payment and closing costs, have good credit, a great realtor, are secure in your job income, and are ready for the commitment of homeownership," he says.
Christopher Elliott specializes in solving unsolvable consumer problems. Contact him with your questions on his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google or sign up for his newsletter.