Prof. Rachel Ngai, London School of Economics...

... in noticing that during the summer months house prices are so much higher than during the winter, and that the volume of transactions is considerably higher also, wonders why this might be, and quantifies the phenomenon so that you can make a reasoned decision about when to buy and sell.

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Hot and Cold Residential RE Markets

The study originated when the study's authors entered the residential real estate market to buy a home and started became aware that there seems to be a regular cycle during which there is more activity in the summer when prices are higher than in the winter months when prices are lower.  This is a puzzling scenario because it begs the question: Why would buyers enter a market during a period when it is known that prices will be higher?  Why do they not wait until the winter when they know that prices will be lower.  And on the flip side, why do sellers sell during the winter season when they know that prices will be lower?

The pattern of higher prices and more activity in the summer, and lower prices and less activity is so ingrained in the market that In the US the FHFA produces two house price indexes; one that is the actual price and the other that is seasonalized.  This means that the FHFA is reporting housing prices as though the cyclicality of the seasons does not exist.

Summer Prices up to 8% More Than Winter

The study looked at how big was this seasonal impact by looking at the raw data and not the seasonalized data to determine what is the difference between the summer and winter months for house prices.  They found that the difference between the summer and the winter months is around 4.5% – a significant difference in pricing between the seasons – and that this difference has remained consistent for at least two decades.

The study found international differences in the seasonality with the UK having higher price differences summer over winter, and found that there were regional differences.  For example, major California cities experience an 8% variance from winter to summer seasons.  This is a very significant price difference, one season over another.

Similarly, the seasonality impacted the transactional volume with summer months experiencing over two and a half times more transactional volume than the winter months i.e. a 150% increase in volume.

Pay More for the Right Home

The study thus put specific numbers on this known seasonality in the market, and then set out to explain why this was happening – why would anyone buy in the summer when prices were higher, or sell in the winter when prices were demonstrably lower.  To answer this question the researchers considered the motivation for participants in the housing market.  Typically, these are people who wish to live in the house that they buy – not always, but for the most part this is true.  On average in the US and the UK, people tend to live in their homes for around ten years.  [This trend is increasing in the US and has been discussed previously by economist Jordan Levine of the California Association of Realtors in a prior podcast].

The process of buying a house is costly on many levels.  It is time consuming, stressful, and, of course, costly in financial terms, so when buyers look they tend to pay a lot of attention to the process and to take care in ensuring that the house they choose is one in which they will likely be happy to live for up to a decade.   The extent to which a house suits a particular person is very specific to that person – one person might love a house for a number of reasons that another person might not.  The result of this differentiation is that for someone who likes a specific home, they may be willing to pay more than the person who likes it less.

The Thick Market

This concept that the same home can enjoy different valuations depending on the individual’s perception of that home is what the researchers called the ‘match quality’ of the home.  If a person likes the home they will be willing to purchase the home for a higher price than other people might.  This is the first building block of the theory underpinning the study.

The second building block of the theory is that where you have a market where the match quality is important – like, perhaps, the jobs market or the marriage market – when things are so specific to the pair, then what you want is that naturally in an environment where there are more choices around it will be more likely that the buyer will find a better match.  This is called the ‘thick market effect’ where in a market with more choices you are likely to find something that you really like.  In the case of a house, as perhaps with a job or a marriage candidate, when you find the right match you will be willing to pay more for it primarily because you like it that much more.

Likewise, as a seller, if you sell in a market where buyers are going to like your house more, then you will have the expectation that you will get a higher price.  This is the second building block of the theory.

Amplification

When you put everything together, consider the circumstance when there is a small amount of people who want to buy a house in the summer.  Perhaps because of the school calendar, or because summer is a better time to look for houses because there is more light, or because people get married in the summer.  Whatever the reason, even this small amount of people entering the market triggers other people to come in because it means that there will be more choices for them as well.

More Choice = Higher Price (But the Perfect Home)

So what we see is higher prices in the summer because the quality of the match between buyer and the homes that they find is higher and so they are willing to pay more, and also they are more likely to find that perfect match because the number of available options is also higher.  This now brings us back to the question why is it that buyers, knowing that prices are lower in the winter, why do they not buy in the winter?  Well, if the buyer cares about the quality of living in the house then they value having more choice.  If they wait until the winter they may not have same choices and so may not be able to find the home that best suits their needs.

Conclusions and Recommendations

As a buyer, if you are picky about what you are looking for and are looking for something very specific, then you should wait until the summer when there is more choice and be prepared to pay more for that perfect home.  If not so picky, then wait until the winter season when you can get a better price on something that may not be quite perfect for you, but that might offer better value for money.

As a seller, if you have a house that has a lot of special features then you should sell in the summer season because there are more people around looking for a home and you are going to be more likely to find someone who values those many features and will be willing to pay for them.  If you house is, for example, a new build surrounded by homes that are very similar or otherwise does not have particularly special features, then there is no need to wait.

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