When is the ideal time to buy or list your home in the New York City market? The right answer may be: There is no right answer. There are some clues, however, that might help you decide what time is best for you, whether you’re buyer or seller. The general theory goes something like this: On one hand, inventory is up and open house crowds are large during what’s known as the “high season,” beginning in spring and lasting through early fall. On the other hand, deals are more likely for buyers in the slower months. To get to the bottom of the “When to buy and sell in New York City” question, we looked at the numbers and consulted several New York City real estate experts, who weighed in on the benefits and challenges of buying and selling in the high and low seasons — and who underscored how in the New York market you have to be prepared for just about anything.
Buying and selling in the high season
When Viktorya Peters bought a co-op unit in Brooklyn in 2013, on the border of Kensington and Midwood, Brooklyn, she chose a DIY route — instead of picking a broker, she scoured the internet for listings within her price range. “I needed to buy before my lease ended in June,” she says. “I didn’t necessarily realize what I was getting into.” She started attending open houses every other night, but was discouraged by a number of buyers who could pay all cash or the number of overpriced apartments she toured in Kensington proper. She was outbid on two apartments before she finally secured her co-op; her search took three months total.
Peters’ story isn’t uncommon, especially since she — and many other buyers in New York City — begin their search in the high season, which according to Douglas Elliman broker Ralph Modica, typically runs from March 15th through the end of July, although it can run into September depending on the year. Why then? With warmer weather comes a desire to get out and about and longer daylight hours, and people with children often want to move before the start of the next school year. These factors put seekers in the mood to buy, and as a result, listings surge and open houses get crowded. The one notable exception is the month of August, a particularly slow time due to vacation habits, which have New Yorkers exiting the city when the summer is at its most unpleasant.
“If you’re looking to sell for a premium, then putting a house or condo on the market during the spring or beginning of the summer is crucial,” says Mordy Getz, of the real estate firm Transition Acquisitions. Getz’s firm purchases rundown Brooklyn townhouses, rehabs them, and puts them back on the market, a practice known as flipping. The group listed a townhouse in Bushwick in June 2013 and achieved multiple offers at ask; they then listed another townhouse in Bed-Stuy in the spring of 2013 and sold the home at full ask. For another Bed-Stuy property, which the firm did not list until August, Getz says that, “The offers [were] not coming in like the others, despite it being an awesome property.” The firm decided to wait on listing a Fort Greene townhouse, currently under renovation, until March of 2014, taking into account the fewer buyers winter brings.
The numbers do show that buyers tend to pay a little more in the warm months of buying, according to market reports from Corcoran. For instance, from the relatively robust July 2013 to the relatively slow August 2013, the average sales price in Brooklyn was reduced — from $979,444 to $860,400. Numbers also support the theory that inventory tends to be higher, as in July of the same year there were 4,020 listings up in Brooklyn that month, while in August the number dropped to 3,949. Manhattan saw a similar price hike with condo and co-op sales rising from $2,142,629 in the slower month of August to $2,155,153 in the more historically robust month of September. The listing numbers went up in a similar fashion, with the 2,149 condo and co-op listings in August boosting to 2,320 in September.
Buying and selling in blackout times
Slower months, known as “blackout times,” usually fall in extreme-weather months and near holidays. “We consider blackout times to be around Thanksgiving, Christmas and general holidays — that’s when traffic dies down. During the sweltering heat of August, when people are vacationing, is another slow time,” says Modica. That doesn’t mean buyers and sellers should completely shy away from the colder and less desirable months, however. In the wintertime, potential buyers avoid the crowded open houses, the numerous all-cash offers and the bidding wars. The tradeoff: They are choosing from reduced inventory. “If you’re looking to buy for a bargain, then start buying in November and stop buying end of February. When sellers see very few showings or very few people attending an open house, then a buyer can put in a low offer and it will get accepted,” Getz says. As for sellers, they can benefit from a reduced marketplace as well, especially if theirs is the only type of home on the market in that particular area.
In fact, there has been little to buy in prime areas of brownstone Brooklyn recently, and that’s having an influence too — but it can mean different things for different areas. For a neighborhood like Cobble Hill, it means prices dropped in 2013 because of an overall lack of available properties, while in neighboring Carroll Gardens, which had several new developments, became the borough’s most expensive neighborhood, rising to a median price of $985,000, bump of 43 percent over 2012 according to the Daily News.
The numbers don’t always match up, however. In May and June of 2013, the average price of a Manhattan condo or co-op dropped from $1,953,500 to $1,673,084, as did the number of listings, from 2,418 to 2,360. Corcoran counted 2,558 listings in January and 2,512 in February — actually a higher inventory than in the so-called “high season.” Michael Slattery, the senior vice president for research at the Real Estate Board of New York, says he’s reluctant to make judgments about seasonal changes from quarter to quarter. “In general, prices in New York City are appreciating with a limited inventory,” he says.
And it’s true — the New York market is strong, notwithstanding seasonal changes. “The strong market completely overshadows the importance of the season. Ultimately, there are more buyers out there than there are things to buy,” says Lindsay Barrett, a broker with Corcoran. All the brokers we spoke with emphasized that if the price is right, and the property quality is high, there will be demand. “There’s nothing wrong or right when listing a property. You have to look at the current market and see what’s already there and what’s needed,” Modica says. And from Barrett: “After 10 years as a broker, I find the best time to buy or sell has much more to do with the market and economy as a whole, rather than the seasonality of it.”
There are always extraneous factors that can skew the seasonal buying trends all together. A number of sources mentioned the winter market of 2012 was a notable exception to the slow buying season; buyers and sellers feared a capital gains tax increase in 2013, and it spurred a crazy selling and buying spree. Jonathan Miller, the famous number cruncher of New York City real estate, reported that since the Lehman crash, “I’ve seen less historical norms than in all of my 27 years of property experience.” He predicts that as we move further away from the credit crunch and the housing market depression, the market will return to its more predictable seasonal ebb and flows.
If all this seems intimidating, our Brooklyn buyer Viktorya Peters did offer some words of relief: “Buying is not the same mad rush I faced with renting in New York,” she says. “I really don’t think it matters when you start looking … you just need to start looking before you’re really ready. It just takes awhile to find exactly the right place.”