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Home Economics: Holidays can be a merry time to sell a house after all

Is a new house, or being able to sell your present one, near the top of the list you sent Santa Claus?

Is a new house, or being able to sell your present one, near the top of the list you sent Santa Claus?

Because if you're looking for a time to list your house for sale, or to begin searching for that place of your dreams, the holidays might just be it.

If you're a seller, one advantage is that would-be buyers out in the market during the holidays tend to have a reason for being there, and so are very serious about the hunt. A recent survey of Realtors around the country found 79 percent had concluded as much, and area agents and brokers affirmed the observation.

"Not many people decide to casually look over the holiday," said Jeffrey Block, an agent with Prudential Fox & Roach who sells in Center City. "But if someone is ready to buy, they certainly will."

Said Noelle Barbone, who manages the Weichert Realtors office in Media: "Holiday time is when people have some downtime and can get out and shop for a house."

In addition, Barbone said, "corporate transferees are out and about in December and January," months that, even in an unending economic downturn, find business executives on the move.

Marianne Harris, sales and marketing director for Dranoff Properties in Philadelphia, said, "It seems like many companies are completing their calendar-year budgets, and they are hiring people to start in January, so these new hires are looking for places to live."

Plus, Harris said, "rather than being distracted at the holidays, a lot of people are making 'life decisions' for the upcoming year."

She and her husband "bought our home at the Shore in December because we had time then to really check out the market, and the end of the year seemed like a good time to plan for the following year."

Diane Williams, of Weichert Realtors in Blue Bell, recalls spending one New Year's Day writing an agreement of sale for first-time buyers.

Even though the real estate market remains slow generally, Williams said she sold an $875,000 listing in the first week of December, took a set of buyers from house to house in Upper Bucks County during the torrential downpours of Dec. 7, and has several listing appointments in the week up to Christmas Eve.

There are, of course, tax advantages to closing on a house before the first of the year. Consult your accountant or the person who prepares your return for details.

But there are also some caveats to holiday-time real estate activity.

Not many sellers put their homes on the market once mid-December arrives, said Block, and at that point, "they will usually wait until the new year, so the inventory is typically on the lower side over the holidays."

If a seller lists for the first time after mid-December or lowers the price, "the concern is that the listing or price reduction will seem stale by days on market by the time the market swings back into action in mid-January," Block said. "This is a strategy point that a seller and I will always discuss."

Although credit availability remains an issue, real estate agents and builders say, those who qualify for mortgages have to keep holiday interruptions in mind.

"You need to make sure there is enough time for the lender to process the mortgage application," said Jerome Scarpello, of Leo Mortgage in Ambler.

"This year, Christmas falls on Sunday, so lenders may celebrate the holiday on Monday," Scarpello said. "Though some lenders may be working, it does not count as a business day, and banks won't be funding loans."

Typically, he said, a loan can be processed and closed in 30 days, but "new Dodd-Frank regulations have added time in every aspect, from delivery of disclosures, time by which an appraisal can be ordered, and mandatory 'wait' times when loan terms change. You need to look at a calendar before scheduling the closing."

Forty percent of the Realtors surveyed believe home staging plays an even larger role at holiday time than the rest of the year. Yet there seems to be a difference of opinion among Realtors about the kinds of decorations sellers should use., the website of the National Association of Realtors, reports that the majority of its members "advise sellers to put out some non-religious holiday decorations during an open house to make a home feel inviting."

But 28 percent believe sellers should put out all their holiday decorations, including religious ones, to make their homes feel festive. Twenty-seven percent think sellers should put out seasonal decorations that are non-holiday specific.

Fewer Realtors (8 percent) said they advise sellers to stage their homes the same way they would any other time of year, with no holiday or seasonal decorations.

When real estate professionals were asked which holiday staging techniques they recommend to sellers, a lit fireplace was named by the most. They also encourage sellers to update outdoor lighting because days are shorter and prospective buyers more likely to see the houses at night.

Agents and brokers recommend "winter-scented home fragrances" before an open house, and making the house feel more cozy with reading nooks and blankets on the couches and beds.

Other suggestions: setting the table to showcase holiday entertaining and playing seasonal music - "Sleigh Ride," for example.

"Although the grass isn't green and the azaleas are not in bloom, many homes look great with conservative holiday decorations and the fireplace roaring," said John Duffy, owner of Duffy Real Estate on the Main Line, who advises sellers to try to capitalize on the diminished competition the holidays bring.