Buying a home in the off-season: What to expect (© Corbis)

© Corbis

So you've saved up your down payment, rates are about as low as you think they'll go, and you're ready to start home shopping, but it's November – and your pals are telling you that you've missed the homebuying window for the year. (Bing: When does traditional homebuying season start?)

Is that really true? In this installment of Buying Advice, we'll look at what buyers can expect from the housing market at the end of the year. What are the pros and cons of buying a home while most of the country is focused on buying and wrapping gifts?

Also, where should you turn when shopping for a mortgage? Is a broker a good choice?

Holiday house hunting
Shopping for a home in November and December might be somewhat less than ideal, as there are fewer homes to choose from and not as many open houses to peruse in the season's cold, wet weather.

But a couple of things are working to your advantage, says Bob McWilliams of Champion Realty in Annapolis, Md. There will be less competition for any house you do find and fall in love with, and less competition should translate into a bigger discount. Prices are typically at a 12-month low in December, according to Realtor.com.

"You don't have to be as aggressive with that initial first offer," McWilliams says. 

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Indeed, sellers willing to keep their house on the market in winter may be more flexible in negotiating the terms of an offer; extending the time to close or agreeing to other concessions.

You're also likely to get more of your agent's time as the year winds down.

Of course, the downside to this end-of-the-year shopping is diminished selection. "The number of listings that come to market in the spring is 65% higher than what we see in October, November and December," McWilliams says. Many people just don't want to focus on showings during the holidays. 

However, if you do see something you like, it's a good time to pull the trigger. With rates near record lows, you might be able to afford more house now than you would be able to in the spring when rates are expected to edge up. And lenders may be more willing to shave down fees at this off-peak time to gain your business.

"I tell my clients, if you can get 90% of what you want, you should probably go for it," McWilliams says.

Finding the blemished bargains
Looking for the best bargain in a neighborhood? Zillow advises looking for listings where sellers clearly ignored their agent's advice. In a recent blog post, the site noted factors such as crowded rooms, knick-knacks and bad lighting, which can affect a selling price, but not long-term value.

(Buyers: What features or problems did you ignore in your quest to get a better price? How much money did you save? Did it work out, or did you come to regret the decision? Email your story tomsnrealestate@microsoft.com. It might be used in an upcoming column.)

Housing market snapshot
Existing-home sales dipped in September, as for-sale inventory tightened across the country, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Sales fell 1.75% to 4.75 million in September from 4.83 million in August, while remaining 11% above the 4.28 million pace set in September 2011.

Home affordability calculator

Lawrence Yun, the NAR's chief economist, insists that the recovery continues in earnest, despite some month-to-month setbacks. "More people are attempting to buy homes than are able to qualify for mortgages, and recent price increases are not deterring buyer interest. Rather, inventory shortages are limiting sales, notably in parts of the West."

These shortages helped to drive up prices. The national median existing-home price was $183,900 in September, up 11.3% from a year ago – the seventh consecutive month of year-over-year increases.

Meanwhile, pending home sales – based on contract signings rather than closings – edged up ever so slightly in September. The NAR's Pending Home Sales Index nudged up 0.3% to 99.5 in September, compared with 99.2 in August. However, it is 14.5% above the 86.9 recorded in September 2011. A level of 100 or higher for the index is considered a sign of a healthy market.

Slide show:  What you can buy — new — for $250,000

Homebuilders too are benefiting from the continued shortage of homes for sale and the lower supply of foreclosures, according to the Census Bureau. Sales of new single-family homes jumped 5.7% to 389,000 in September from 368,000 in August. Year over year, sales were up a whopping 27%.

The median sale price of new houses sold in September 2012 was $242,400.

Should I go with a broker or a mortgage lender?
One of the most confusing aspects of the homebuying process is securing a mortgage.

While real-estate agents often have a mortgage broker that they'll recommend, experts say you should also get quotes from a few lenders that originate and close loans, such as a regional lender or local credit union.

"They can … offer widely different shopping experiences," says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of mortgage data firm HSH.

Back in the old days, Gumbinger says, the borrower paid the broker to shop his loan to a variety of sources, in the form of points and fees. Today, Gumbinger says, brokers are contracted representatives for a number of different lenders, and their services paid for by the lender when a loan is originated.

That could mean the broker has some incentive to get you into a loan with a higher interest rate than you qualify for. But with the advent of the mortgage lender registry and more scrutiny of the industry overall, Gumbinger says there's less chance of serious abuses than in years past.

One point in the broker's favor: He might have access to money from a variety of sources, including better options for borrowers who have irregular income, are self-employed or have high debt, or those looking for a less common loan like a seven-year adjustable-rate mortgage.

 "It is when borrowers wander off the well-trodden path that the value of brokers gains," Gumbinger says.

Meanwhile, borrowers with an excellent credit score and history who are looking for a standard 30-year fixed-rate loan may get the right combination of rate and closing costs with a much less exhaustive search. Still, Gumbinger says everyone should take the time to consider multiple sources.

"Generally, our advice is, 'Shop around and leave no stone unturned,'" Gumbinger says.

And just because a lender or a couple of lenders have responded "no" to your specific needs, he says, that doesn't necessarily mean you can't find what you're looking for in the mortgage market.

Once you do have a variety of bids, you might want to check out those lenders you are less familiar with in the state where they are licensed, as well as your state. Check for any complaints with your state banking commission or real-estate board, Gumbinger said, and ask your friends or clients if they have any recommendations.

We want to hear from you: As always, we welcome your questions. Submit them either in the comments section below or on Facebook, or email msnrealestate@microsoft.com. Brief questions have the best chance of being answered.