Buying a House in Fall? Avoid These Pitfalls


By Jason Notte

The real estate market supposedly shines in the spring and summer sun, but fall is where the deals are found.

Existing home sales are up more than 10 percent since last year, while the price of those homes has risen 9.4% over the same span, according to the National Association of Realtors. Meanwhile, the backlog of homes on the market has dwindled 31 percent from a more than nine-month supply of 3.15 million last July to a 6.4-month supply of 2.4 million this summer. As a result, the percentage of "distressed" and foreclosed homes on the market dropped from 29 percent last year to 24 percent in July.

"Mortgage interest rates have been at record lows this year, while rents have been rising at faster rates," says Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "Combined, these factors are helping to unleash a pent-up demand."

With interest rates on 30-year mortgages dropping from 4.55 percent last July to 3.55 percent today, buyers who've been riding out the economic downturn and housing crisis might be tempted to make a move. With real estate site Zillow reporting that 31 percent of American mortgages are still underwater despite rising prices -- including nearly 51 percent of mortgages held by homeowners ages 30 through 34 -- it helps to look before you leap this fall.

With help from the National Association of Realtors and Zillow, we put together the following checklist of items to keep in mind when approaching the autumn real estate market:

1. Go bargain hunting.

According to NAR numbers, home prices tend to plummet by an average $7,000 once Labor Day passes. That's not always the case out West or in the South, where prices level off or even jump a bit during the cold months, but Midwest home prices fall by an average of $10,000 between August and September, while Northeast prices plummet by nearly $20,000 by October.

2. Know your market.

If you're hunting around Stowe, Vt., or Coral Springs, Fla., for deals around this time of year, you may as well be pricing out Caribbean vacation homes in winter. Ski resorts, popular leaf-peeping spots and permanently warm climates in Florida and Southern California just aren't going to come through with fall discounts. Know why folks in less-scenic Northeast and Midwest towns drop prices so quickly? Because winter's coming and they don't want to spend another year digging out the place. Use their years of snowbound misery to your advantage.

3. Sniff out desperation.

Does the photo of the house you've been pining over all summer on MLS look exactly as it did when you first saw it Memorial Day? Has the price dropped without eliciting so much as an "under contract" update? Is there yet another open house coming up in a few weeks? That all works in your favor. If a buyer hasn't budged after one of the hottest real estate summers since the housing crisis began, chances are there's room to negotiate. If they want the house sold more than they want a tidy profit, that's how deals are born.

4. Kick the tires.

Fall may be a lovely corridor of copper leaves and crisp temperatures in some areas, but it's also the time of year the weather takes a turn. When you're buying a home, the leaf litter and returning rain provide ample opportunities to see where the current homeowners have done work and what they've neglected on the way out the door. For the most part, there shouldn't be leaves piled up in the gutters in late September or early October. There also should be decent gutter drainage that doesn't involve water spewing from where a drainpipe once was.

5. Remember, you'll have help.

Census Bureau numbers indicate that fall, and September in particular, is a bit of a rough patch for contractors and home and garden stores such as Home Depot and Lowes. If your dream house could use a kitchen upgrade or central air through its heating ducts, home stores and builders usually start discounting inventory around this time of year and can help you make changes on the cheap. Of course, if you're looking to build from scratch, those discounts not only add up, but bring in business for a homebuilding industry that's grown 25 percent since last year but is still building less than half than the "normal" number of homes it completes in a year.

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