As you deck the halls and plan for the New Year, you may be thinking of buying a new home when the weather warms up and the traditional spring selling season arrives.

But if you’re ready now, winter actually can be a great time to buy, even in areas where the beautiful outdoor patio is covered with snow.

“Every winter is a buyer’s market,” says Alison Bernstein, president and founder of Suburban Jungle, a New York real estate company.

Buyers looking for a new home in winter have less competition, since fewer people are looking. That means fewer multiple-offer situations. Plus, sellers who keep their homes on the market during the winter are often more motivated and willing to make a deal. The downside is that there are fewer homes for sale.

[See: Is Your Home Alone for the Holidays? How to Keep Your House Bandit-Free.]

“There are fewer buyers generally in the market. That can make your offer stronger to sellers,” says Michelle Leader, a Redfin agent in Oklahoma City. “Sellers – they’re not testing the market like we see sometimes in the spring.”

Richard Harty, broker-owner at the Harty Realty Group in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, tells buyers that the Chicago winter is a great time for house hunting. Not only do most buyers find less competition and more motivated sellers, they can feel how well-insulated a home is and how well the heating system works – both important factors in Chicago.

“I like to show a house after a big snowfall,” Harty says. “A house that’s properly insulated will not have icicles hanging from the gutter.” Plus, he says, you can find out whether all the rooms stay warm or whether the owners need space heaters in some rooms. “I think you get a good sense of the home and how it performs during the cold season,” Harty says.

There are some challenges involved with searching for a home in winter. One, of course, is walking around in the cold, snowy weather, dodging ice patches and puddles. A layer of snow makes it hard to see roofs, patios, driveways and outdoor areas. Even without snow, a lush green lawn full of beautiful plants and shade trees in summer can look bare in winter.

Winter can also make it difficult to do a thorough inspection of some elements, including roofs, septic tanks and other exterior features. That makes the buyer’s due diligence even more important. Most states require a certain level of seller disclosure to give the buyer an idea of the age and condition of elements such as the furnace and the roof. But you can also ask specific questions and request building permits or receipts to show, for example, when the roof was last replaced.

“You certainly need to be very careful with your inspection of the house,” Harty says. Sometimes the best option is for the seller to leave money in escrow for repairs that can’t be made in winter, such as replacing a roof or repaving a driveway.

[See: The Best Apps for House Hunting.]

“If it’s frozen and you can’t do a septic inspection, … there’s always a workaround,” Bernstein says.

In some parts of the country winter doesn’t usually present any additional challenges. You’re unlikely to suffer any weather-related issues in California, Arizona or Texas, and winter is a minor inconvenience in much of the South. In parts of Florida, winter is a peak season for home buying because the snowbirds are down from the north.

Here are six tips for buying a home in the winter:

Have a flexible schedule. People are busy around the holidays, so even the most motivated sellers may not be able to show a home at the spur of the moment.

Ask for photos of the home in other seasons. If the house has been on the market for a while, the photos and videos created as part of the marketing package could show the home in another season. If not, ask the sellers if they have photos showing the backyard, patio, pool, flower beds and other elements that don’t look good in winter.

Document the condition of things you can’t see. Ask when the roof was last replaced, whether the septic tank has been serviced and when the deck was cleaned. Ask the sellers for receipts or copies of building permits to document their claims.

Don’t be afraid to offer below asking price. If the home has been on the market for a while, and it is still for sale in the winter, sellers could be ready to accept a lower offer, especially on an expensive home. Get your agent to do some research and find out how motivated the seller is.

Keep looking until you find what you want. The number of homes for sale is fewer in winter, so you may not find your dream home at first. Savvy homeowners will start putting their homes on the market after the Super Bowl, so it makes sense to keep searching through the winter rather than taking time off until spring.

[See: 8 Home-Selling Buzzwords That Annoy Consumers.]

Allow more time for closing. Snow and ice may delay inspections, appraisals or other pieces of the closing process. Make sure your schedule is flexible enough to adapt. You might get lucky, however, and actually be able to close more quickly since mortgage professionals and real estate agents are not as busy in winter.

Tags: real estate, housing market, home prices, money, weather


Teresa Mears writes about personal finance, real estate and retirement for U.S. News and other publications. She was previously the real estate blogger for MSN Money and worked as the Home & Design editor for The Miami Herald. During her journalism career, she worked on coverage of immigration, religion, national and international news and local news, serving on the staffs of The Miami Herald, The Los Angeles Times and the St. Petersburg Times. She has also been a contributor for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, among other publications. She publishes Living on the Cheap and Miami on the Cheap. Follow her on Twitter @TeresaMears.

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