Off-season buyers find homes for the holidays

Seasonal swing

Metro Atlanta home sales, 2015

January, 2,568

June, 5,648

October, 3,926

Source: Atlanta Board of Realtors

Just about everybody knows that the holiday season is not the time to be house-hunting. Apparently no one told Robert Hatcher.

The 34-year-old Douglasville man has never owned a home, but he and his fiancé – a teacher – have been spending weekends and evenings in searching for a house to buy. They weren’t going to stop just because the end of the year is the worst time to be in the market.

“I’ve been looking really for two years,” he said. “And that’s what we like to do, to go out and look for houses.”

And if this is also the wrong time to be selling a house, well, that message didn’t get to Stephen Haines.

As a two-decade veteran of the home-building industry, and as division president for Meritage Homes in Atlanta, Haines knows that demand for housing typically crests in the late spring and summer, but he also knows that’s not the whole story.

The wave of warm-weather buying is pegged to the start of the school year and driven by the parental search to find the right district. But not everyone has children to consider and – whether or not they have kids – not everyone can choose when they move.

So Meritage, which is building just shy of 300 homes in the region this year, hasn’t seen the usual slide, Haines said. In fact, November was a very strong month.

The company builds a range of homes – mostly to the north and west of Atlanta. Most are priced around $300,000, he said.

Much of the fall success came because the company had completed houses in an Atlanta market with a shortage of homes for sale, he said.

“About 70 percent of our sales were finished homes. When supply is low, people will be drawn to the supply that is there.”

Atlanta’s housing market has been on the upswing but is still far more subdued than in the years before the housing bubble burst and the economy plunged into recession.

This year, the market peaked in June with 5,648 sales, according to the Atlanta Board of Realtors. Last year, the market peaked in July and in 2013, May was the busiest month for sales. Sales still follow the traditional pattern — a spring-summer crest into a fall slump and winter doldrums.

So, with stomachs still full of stuffing and minds looking forward to presents and trees and family celebrations, does it make any sense to go house-hunting? Or for that matter, to put your home on the market?

Not if you put it that way, said Zac Pasmanick, associate broker at RE/MAX Metro Atlanta CitySide.

“Does anybody wake up and say, ‘I want to list my house for sale at the slowest time of the year’? No.”

But the attention given to summertime sales masks a large part of the market: non-parents.

“Anybody who is not motivated by children might be in the market.”

There are also end-of-year tax incentives, with potential breaks for a first-time buyer. And there’s also an unusual incentive this year, he said, in the prospect of higher mortgage rates in 2016.

“There are a lot of buyers that are motivated by the threat of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates. We are seeing more of that.”

More, but not enough to reverse the usual season drop-off, said Leah Christian, a Realtor at Engel & Volkers in Atlanta.

“There are fewer sales at the holidays – it’s true. Fewer buyers, fewer sellers. People know it’s a time of busy-ness in their own homes. So sellers will generally wait until after the holidays to list.’”

Still, clever people see an angle, she said.

“Some people take advantage of that. They think that the sellers who are out there will be more willing to negotiate.”

Just before Thanksgiving, Hatcher and his fiancé put in an offer on a house in Douglasville, then went back and forth with the owner on the price.

“I like it — it’s updated,” Hatcher said of the house. “It has a really nice kitchen. The master bedroom is huge. The backyard is humongous. Even though we don’t have kids right now, I want to take advantage so I won’t have to think about moving in a couple of years.”

A little more than a week after Thanksgiving the couple got good news: their offer was accepted, and they had a contract to buy the house.