Spring and all its glory is right around the corner — just take a look at the signs all around you.
No, we're not talking about the budding flowers or the chirping birds — we're referring to those "For Sale" signs that start popping up on lawns across the country as the weather starts heating up.
And once the home-buying season commences … so do the bidding wars and mad dashes from one open house to another.
Since the housing market can be a tricky one to suss out, we asked agents across the country to give us their assessments for this season's real estate landscape.
Their overarching observation? This will be a competitive home-buying season — so if you snooze, you may lose out on that four-bedroom colonial you've been eyeing.
"The major pitfall is lack of preparation," says David Yocum, a Redfin real estate agent based in Chicago. "The [housing] recovery appears slow due to a lack of inventory and a low participation rate among first-time buyers, but it's still a competitive seller's market."
So check out our pros' tips for boosting your chances of success — and possibly snagging that dream home by summer.
Spring house-hunting tip #1: Close that laptop — and canvass old-fashioned open houses
These days, using real estate sites to explore your options is par for the course: 90 percent of people search for listings online during their home-buying process.
Kicking off your search online is a good move, but don't dawdle too long behind the computer screen — inventory is expected to be tight in many major markets, so you literally want to hit the ground running.
"In our market we hope for a burst of new inventory in the spring, but that doesn't always happen," says Richard Seaton, vice president at TTR Sotheby's International Realty in the Washington, D.C., area. "Even if that burst comes, demand will outstrip supply, so buyers have to be in a position to make a decision quickly."
Plus, what you view online may not necessarily reflect what you see when you pull up to the curb. "Buyers should be careful," Seaton warns. "The internet can tell only part of the story — and it's usually the part the seller wants you to hear."
That's why Yocum recommends using your favorite real estate site as more of an alert than a decision-making tool by setting up instant updates for homes in desired neighborhoods so you can be notified of new inventory quickly — and act quickly.
"You need to be able to see the new homes the day they list, so you can be the first to see the home and make a quick decision," he says. "First offers usually are successful offers."
One other factor to consider? If you live a warm state, you may want to kick things off early. According to data from Trulia, the hunt in sunnier locales is already heating up. Home searches in Cape Coral–Fort Myers, Fla., for instance, were up 22 percent over the national average in January and February, while Tucson, Ariz., was up 11 percent.
Spring house-hunting tip #2: Educate yourself on market values and trends
"Buyers need to get up to speed quickly on market values so they know the right decision when it presents itself," Yocum says. "The more quickly buyers can educate themselves, the more successful the home search will be."
This, of course, is where it's really all about location, location, location. According to the Case-Shiller 2014 home price index, San Francisco saw the largest annual regional gain at 9.3 percent, while other major markets — like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. — saw less than 2 percent.
"We're in full-blown rocket booster mode and it's great to be a seller," says Alexander Clark, a realtor with Paragon Real Estate Group who runs TheFrontSteps.com, a San Francisco real estate blog. "Prices are through the roof — and going higher with each property sold."
Of course, one of the best sources of insider information is a well-connected real estate agent. But Seaton also suggests checking out sites like Curbed.com for trends in your desired area and to find where new inventory may soon be popping up.
Be aware, too, that there could be microtrends in your region that could impact local prices. For example, maybe new homes run at a premium to older ones, or the demand for townhomes and condos outpaces single family homes in your market.
Spring house-hunting tip #3: Nab low mortgage rates now
Another reason not to dawdle too long? You want to take advantage of low interest rates while they last.
"Mortgage rates are still historically low, allowing buyers to wrap up the most house their money will afford them at payment levels that should be affordable for decades," Yocum says.
In fact, interest rates are so low that, in many markets, monthly mortgage payments are less than rent, adds Seaton. "Most predictions are that the fabulously low interest rates will stay that way through the spring, and that the variety of loan packages available to buyers will continue to multiply," he adds.
House hunters also got another boost recently: In January the Federal Housing Authority, which backs loans for borrowers who make low down payments, lowered the annual insurance premium it requires from 1.35 percent of a home loan to just 0.85 percent. The Housing Department estimates this will save more than two million FHA homeowners about $900 a year.
Bottom line: It's a prime time to jump on a home loan. After all, mortgage rates can be unpredictable — and a decision by the Fed to raise interest rates mid-year, as many economists predict, could cause them to climb.
Spring house-hunting tip #4: Build your home-buying dream team before you bid
If spring-cleaning season has you in a hyper-organized mood, channel some of that spirit into your house hunting — in order to be a serious frontrunner in a bidding war, you'll need to have all of your ducks in a row.
So not only will you need a savvy real estate agent, but you'll also want your lender, inspector and attorney at the ready so you can act fast, says Yocum.
And let's not forget completing your mortgage application and having your loan amount determined in advance. "We move at breakneck speed in San Francisco," Clark adds. "All of my clients must absolutely be 100 percent pre-approved before submitting an offer."
Seaton suggests even taking it a step further. "To make themselves more competitive, the most successful buyers are going beyond the pre-approval process to become fully approved prior to purchasing," he says. "Not all lenders offer this possibility, but some do."
And the better known your lender is locally, the more likely you'll win the confidence of the seller. "No real estate agent wants to recommend that his client accept an offer from a buyer who dug up a lender on the Internet," he adds.
For a seal-the-deal final touch, Yocum suggests drafting a template of the personal letter you'd send to the sellers of a home explaining how much you love their house and why you want it.
"Then, when you find the right home, you can drop in the address, sellers' names and specifics about the home," he says. "Sellers always respond positively to a personal letter, and if buyers are competing, it might be the deciding factor."
Spring house-hunting tip #5: Keep sweeten-the-deal moves in mind
So you've finally found that dream Tudor on a half-acre — but you're stuck in a bidding war with another equally prepared buyer. How do you win by a nose?
For one, include an escalation clause, along with your offer, suggests Seaton. This is an amount that you'd automatically be willing to pay above a competing bid.
For example, let's say you add an escalation clause of $3,000 to your bid of $200,000. If a second offer comes in at $205,000, your bid would get bumped to $208,000. If you're in a hot market, a significant escalation factor could really pique seller interest, Seaton adds.
Yocum also suggests seeing if there are contingency clauses you're willing to forego in your real estate contract. Contingencies are terms of a contract that must be met or the buyer or seller can walk away from the deal; home inspection, appraisal and financing contingencies are among the most common.
To be sure, "all of these have various levels of risk that not all buyers are willing to accept, and you should consult with your team before [removing] any of them," he cautions. After all, you want to protect your earnest money if you suddenly realize your dream home has termites, or an appraiser discovers you're paying far more than market value.
That said, doing due diligence prep work can help you feel better about removing contingencies.
For instance, getting fully approved for a mortgage can help you remove the financing contingency, says Seaton. "And absolutely conduct a pre-inspection prior to making an offer, so that you do not need a home inspection contingency in the offer," he adds.
There are also smaller carrots you can offer, such as finding out when the seller prefers to close and using that closing date in your contract, says Yocum. Or close as quickly as possible and offer to accept rent payments from the sellers, adds Clark.
All these perks can add up to much more than you think. Seaton, for instance, represented a seller earlier this year who ultimately went with a lower bid because the offer had no contingencies. "We see this very often," he says. "Many sellers prefer no risk to a few more dollars."
Ultimately, what all the advice boils down to is making sure you don't get caught unprepared when that perfect property is finally up for grabs.
"The name of the game," Seaton says, "is very much figure out what you want; get your financing straightened; and when the right property comes along, be ready to pounce — and quickly."