CHICAGO — Just your luck — you have to sell your home in winter, the slowest and dreariest sales season of all.
But cheer up. You can use staging, the reduced competition and some seasonal opportunities to your advantage.
"You wouldn't necessarily choose to sell your home in winter," says Katie Severance, a broker for ReMax in Upper Montclair, N.J. "But there are certain extra steps you can take to really help your chances."
Many homeowners pull their houses off the market by year's end if they haven't sold. That's understandable. The period from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day is the slowest time of year for home shopping as people focus on family and holidays.
The weather, too, helps put the chill in sales in most locations between now and spring. January and February see the fewest home sale closings, according to the National Association of Realtors, with the market not fully gearing up until April and May. Another big factor: Homebuyers with children generally time their purchases so moving doesn't interfere with the school year.
Sometimes a job transfer, lease or personal circumstances require plunging into making a sale in the dead of winter. Although that means fewer buyers in most areas, as a seller you'll have a chance to stand out in a thinned-out field of competitors.
Here are some tips to lessen the chances your home will languish on the market:
1. REMEMBER THE BASICS.
Taking care of needed maintenance and repairs is obligatory in any season. A thorough cleaning and getting rid of clutter are equally essential. And tidying up the yard and touching up the exterior appearance to improve the curb appeal also can make the difference between deal or no deal.
In a slow market, nothing counts more than pricing aggressively. Check recent sale prices in your neighborhood on sites such as Zillow.com and Trulia.com and price your home competitively. "If it's priced properly, it will sell any day of the year," says Severance.
2. THINK WARM AND COZY.
Home staging — techniques used to make your house look bigger, brighter, warmer and more appealing — takes on a new focus in winter. Rearranging the furniture and applying a fresh coat of paint to any room in need are just as important. But to convey a cozy impression in winter, it may behoove you to turn up the thermostat and have a fire in the fireplace for open houses. It will give you an edge over the many vacant homes on the market.
Staging may in fact be even more important in winter, according to Loren Keim, a real estate broker and professor of real estate at Lehigh University. "If you have a vacant house in winter with the heat turned down to 50, chances are someone will make a very low offer," he says. "And if you can leave at least a few pieces of furniture behind, it has more of an impact."
Displaying photos of how your property looks in summer is a good idea. Some staging experts also recommend decorating with warm colors such as deep orange or crimson.
3. NEATLY SHOVELED PATHS MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
It might seem obvious to keep sidewalks and driveways free and clear of ice and snow. But many homeowners who have already vacated their houses either aren't diligent about that winter duty or don't do a thorough job.
It's important for reasons of safety, aesthetics and, once again, competition. In particular, a foreclosed house probably won't have walks and parking spaces shoveled out, and "people don't like to deal with that," says Holden Lewis, real estate expert for Bankrate.com.
Lewis recalls pulling up in front of a house he had an appointment to see one February years ago in Toledo, Ohio. The sidewalk wasn't shoveled, and he took a look at the house from his car and decided not to go in. "If you want to sell the house, everything needs to be shoveled and clear," he says.
4. GOOD LIGHTING IS ESSENTIAL.
Your home may appear darker due to less daylight. Fight the gloom. Turn on all the lights possible for visitors — this is no time to worry about the electric bill. Open blinds, drapes and shutters to let natural light pour in. Make sure to clean any grime off the windows first.
Encourage showings during high-daylight hours. Showing after work in the dark isn't a great idea. Make sure you have enough outside illumination for drive-by visitors in the evening, however. And keep the place well-lit even when you're not there.
5. TASTEFUL HOLIDAY DECORATIONS CAN HELP.Comment on this story
The holidays give you an extra chance to make your home stand out. Keep decorations conservative and don't overdo it on outdoor lighting. You don't want to put 25,000 lights on the roof like Clark Griswold in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." As sure as he blacked out the neighborhood, you would scare off buyers. But a big red bow on the For Sale sign and some holiday greenery, twinkling lights and elegant decorations inside can help give buyers a dose of seasonal cheer.
When Christmas and Hanukkah are over, you can keep the spirit alive. A colorful winter wreath on the front door and colorful poinsettias and holly bushes in the yard will help retain a festive look for January and February, when more house-shoppers start to turn up.
Personal Finance Writer Dave Carpenter can be reached at http://twitter.com/scribblerdave .