Lew Sichelman

Buying a house in the winter is a different animal, especially in colder climates where the weather can limit your ability to fully see a property.  

Members of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents say that buying in winter comes with “unique challenges.” As the name suggests, NAEBA members never take listings – they work solely with homebuyers, working to obtain the best deal possible and protect them from making poor decisions. 

Recently, the group produced a white paper highlighting issues winter buyers should be aware of. The top challenge, according to the paper, is the lack of inventory of houses for sale – but that’s not limited to the winter. No matter the time of year, when competition for homes is fierce, exclusive buy-side agents believe you have a better chance with one of them by your side.  

“If we see a house of interest come on the market,” said Victoria Ray Henderson of The Buyer Brokerage in McLean, Virginia, “we work to see it immediately.” 

Traditional agents may not be so nimble, the report claims, due to managing listings and other obligations. It could be two or three days before they can get you a showing – which could be too late. 

Beat the Night 

A more specific winter challenge is the lack of daylight. On the East Coast, it can start to turn dark as early as 4:30 p.m. And since most folks don’t finish work until 5, it’s tough to get a good view of a house’s exterior. You can usually see well enough inside, but most exteriors need to be seen in full daylight. 

To combat this, take a few hours off during the day for showings, or skip lunch for a quick look-see. Otherwise, you or your agent should be equipped with a powerful floodlight-type flashlight – something stronger than your cellphone light – and a compass to assess how the rising and setting sun will affect the light the house gets during the winter. 

Another issue arises when the seller works from home and doesn’t want people traipsing through the place during the workday. More than 25 percent of NAEBA agents called this a “significant issue.” In these cases, your agent should be in close contact with the listing agent to pinpoint exactly when the place can be seen. 

Snow, ice and cold temperatures can make it difficult to evaluate roofs, decks and other structural components. One way to address this is to pay keen attention to weather forecasts so you’ll know when roofs and yards are likely to be snow-covered and when they will be clear. 

It’s also wise to have a home inspector ready to check the exterior at a moment’s notice when the conditions are right. (The interior inspection can be scheduled later.) If that isn’t possible, NAEBA suggests extending the inspection date just for the roof. 

Snow and cold can also make it difficult to evaluate septic tanks, air conditioning systems and other functional components. To protect your interests, your agent should negotiate to have an escrow account set up and funded at closing to cover any issues that are discovered once the weather warms up. 

If everything turns out to be in good shape, the set-aside will be released to the seller. But if something needs to be repaired or replaced, the money to cover the cost goes to the buyer. If there isn’t enough, the buyer is out of luck. But if there is some leftover, the seller gets it back. 

Outdoors Features Hard to Evaluate 

Pools, hot tubs and water features like ponds and streams present another winter obstacle because it’s often impossible to examine them. To minimize concerns here, NAEBA suggests asking for recent photos and receipts to show that mechanical items have been maintained properly. You might even go so far as to call the pool service or other contractors to ask about the condition and maintenance. 

The condition of trees and other landscaping elements are equally difficult to access. To see if a tree is alive and just playing dead for the winter, scrape a bit of bark off a small branch. If you see a green layer under the bark, the tree is most likely dormant and will spring to life again. If you don’t see green, the branch is dead. And if you find several dead branches, the tree is likely a goner. 

Another bad omen: If a lot of bark is separated from the trunk and there’s no new bark underneath, the tree could be in trouble. If the tree is important to you, the NAEBA paper suggests hiring a professional to evaluate it. 

Frankly, it’s more difficult to evaluate just about everything outside in winter. Smells, for example, aren’t as noticeable. Ditto for noise and traffic. But what you don’t notice now may become a significant issue when everything thaws out. So force yourself to be aware of your surroundings, even when all you really want to do is go inside and warm up. Make sure you wear winter shoes or boots for good traction, plus a heavy coat, gloves and a hat to keep warm. 

Finally, Jon Boyd, a NAEBA past president, said the sooner you get into the market, the sooner you’ll see what features and drawbacks are common in the area. 

“That market knowledge is critical,” Boyd said. “No matter how great the [listing] description reads and how lovely the pictures are, every home will have shortcomings. You just want to find the house where you love the features and you can tolerate the flaws.” 

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 50 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance industry publications. Readers can contact him at lsichelman@aol.com. 

Winter Buyers: Be Ready to Be Nimble

by Lew Sichelman time to read: 4 min