Most of the Christmas trees are up, but there's still last-minute shopping to do. There are parties to go to, presents to wrap and holiday dinners to prepare.
So the last thing most people are thinking about one week before Christmas is selling a house. Some people have to do so, though, usually because of job moves. And a few even choose to.
That's because the holiday season isn't quite as deadly as you might expect for real estate. And this season looks to be even better than usual, since there's very little out there for
a serious buyer to well, uh, buy.
"We are absolutely desperate for listings now," said Suzanne Goldstein of Long & Foster Inc.
Traditionally, during the season that kicks off with Thanksgiving, many sellers take their homes off the market. Not many people, except those who absolutely need to sell, want the pressure of keeping their houses perfect for viewing at a time when there are guests visiting and a million other details to handle. It's also the season when many real estate agents go out of town for vacations.
"Agents have been telling sellers for years to wait for the spring market," said Jane Fairweather of the Bethesda office of Coldwell Banker Realty Pros.
"Agents often stop working in December. They want to go shopping, or on vacation," she said. "They have perpetuated the myth by convincing sellers to wait until January when they themselves would have more time. It's something that was created by the industry."
December remains one of the slowest months in the number of homes put under contract. In the last couple of years, however, about the same proportion of actively listed homes were sold in December as in June that same year, according to figures from the Washington area's multiple listing service, Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.
For example, in Northern Virginia, the largest local jurisdiction, 23 percent of the 2,250 houses listed in June 1998 went under contract. In December 1998, with just 1,197 listed, 22 percent went under contract. There are similar patterns in other parts of the region.
"In the winter, you have five buyers for every one house on the market," Fairweather said. "In the spring, you have five buyers for every 10 houses. Would you want to be one of two girls at a dance, or one of 42 girls at a dance?"
And the holiday season provides a seller with a perfect opportunity to dress up the house, something agents say shouldn't be underestimated.
"Residential sales are emotional decisions," Fairweather said. "Buyers don't think about a house, they feel a house. You want people to come in, smell the smells and think about how wonderful it would be to have Christmas in your house. You want the emotional response."
That's just what happened to David and June Trone last year.
The Trones were relocating to the Washington area from Pittsburgh and weren't planning on moving until their children were out of school for the summer. But a six-bedroom colonial in Potomac, beautifully decked out for the holidays, caught their eyes--and their hearts--the week before Christmas last year.
"The house looked beautiful," said David Trone, who with his brother owns the Total Beverage chain. "They had garlands in all the windows and the trees were all lit up. It showed very very well." The Trones put an offer on the house Dec. 20, even though they didn't close on the property until the following summer.
Job moves are a major reason people need to buy or sell during the holidays.
"I get a lot of relocation traffic and we've seen a trend on the relocation of employees," said Chris Cormack of Keller Williams Realty, an agent who specializes in homes in Loudoun County's Ashburn neighborhood. "More people are moving in the middle of the year and more companies are transferring families during the Christmas break."
Gillian and Kevin Carey, whose Ashburn house Cormack is trying to sell, are in that situation.
"It wouldn't be our first choice to move at this time," Gillian Carey said. "But that's when the company wanted us to."
Kevin Carey already is working at his new job for American Express Co. in New York, coming home to his wife and two young children a couple of days a week until the house is sold.
"We need to sell now, absolutely," Gillian Carey said about her four-bedroom contemporary house, which is on the market for $314,000. The Careys have gussied up their house, wrapping the main staircase banister with garland, lighting up the bushes outside and filling the house with poinsettias to make a potential buyer feel warm and fuzzy.
"We want people to imagine having Christmas in our house," Carey said. "We've got candles burning, lights outside." Although it wasn't their choice of time to sell, the Careys were optimistic. They sold their previous house at Christmas time two years ago. "It wasn't a challenge," she said.
Edie Jardine found herself in a similar situation, having recently landed a job as chief marketing officer for a company in Gettysburg, Pa. "My commute is about an hour and a half each way," said Jardine. "I'm kind of anxious to go ahead and relocate so I can get those three hours a day back."
Unlike the Careys, though, Jardine almost preferred selling during the holidays.
"I know there's a shortage of houses right now and this house is just beautiful when it's decorated for the holidays," she said. "It's magical. And I know that anyone looking over the holidays is a serious buyer. They wouldn't be looking for a house over Christmas and New Year's if they weren't serious about making a purchase."
Susan and Rich Daniels, transferring to the Washington area from Fayetteville, Ark., with their two young sons, were one of those hungry buyers this holiday season. But the problem was they couldn't find anything that suited them.
"There just wasn't anything on the market," said Susan Daniels, whose husband works for the Justice Department. "We wanted our boys in school January 3. So we've decided to build a house instead and live in an apartment until then. We purchased a lot and will start building soon."
Said Fairweather, "In the winter, when it's dark and cold, people are not using real estate as an opportunity to do something instead of going to a museum. You're not getting nosy neighbors and people who just want to check out your decorating scheme."
She said, "Here's the problem. Sellers tell me, 'But my azaleas bloom in April.' Well, so do everyone else's. If everyone has blooming azaleas, they become a standard feature."
Edie Jardine was one of those motivated buyers four years ago. She bought her Bethesda house during the holidays, just as she's selling it now.
"I closed on this house December first. I was so excited about having Christmas here. I had this big fantasy about inviting my family down, having a huge Christmas tree in this big beautiful house," she recalled.
"But the woman I bought the house from couldn't move until January. And I was heartbroken."