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O n any given day of stock market trading, price fluctuations are easy to track. When demand goes up, so goes the price. But changes in housing markets are normally much more subtle. It can take a trained eye to spot them.
A smart buyer will collect every scrap of information possible on market trends in a neighborhood before crafting an offer on a property there, says Sid Davis, author of "A Survival Guide for Buying a Home."
"In a cooling market you could make a bid under asking price that you wouldn't consider making in a heating-up market, where competition for houses is fierce," Davis says.
Moreover, a neighborhood that's transitioning from a "sellers' market" to a "buyers' market" could be a place where knowledgeable purchasers can obtain concessions from sellers, such as help paying closing costs.
The key, Davis says, is for the buyer to spot market trends early and act accordingly.
Here are pointers for savvy home shoppers:
Wise buyers should also take careful note of the wording in home-sale listings. Some homeowners will telegraph their eagerness to unload a place with offers of seller financing, or help with closing costs.
Also, a neighborhood where open houses are becoming more prevalent could signal seller anxiety. Worried owners will often ask their listing agents to stage an open house more than once, Tayler says.
"The very best numbers tell you how long a typical house in the community goes from listing to sale. Realtors call these 'days-on-market' statistics. They're easy for your agent to get," Davis says.
In a slowing market, the time it takes to sell an average home will lengthen. That's often a strong sign that sellers may be losing some of their pricing power in the neighborhood, he says. Another key indicator of market trends tells you the percentage of list price that local sellers are getting when a deal closes.
"If the typical seller got 102 percent of what he asked a month ago -- but now gets just 88 percent -- you know that prices are softening," Davis says.
To help chart the direction of a market, buyers should ask their agent for 30 to 60 days' worth of "list-to-sell" price statistics, he says.
A third measure of local market strength involves what agents call "inventory," the number of homes currently available for sale. "If there's a surge in listings beyond what you'd expect for that season, you can usually assume that buyers are gaining bargaining power," Davis says.
Owners who happen to live on a particularly prestigious street, or who have a spectacular setting, can often remain firm on their asking price, even when the overall neighborhood is weakening, according to Tayler.
"Will a new freeway soon cut through the community, or is a Wal-Mart slated to go in? Answers to such questions can be very revealing," he says.
Granted, virtually all property goes up over the long-term, Davis notes. But is it realistic for you to wait 10 years or longer for a rebound? Still, true bargains can be found in a community that's enduring a temporary economic setback, Davis says.
Before deciding on your initial price proposal, you should ask your agent to talk to the listing agent about the owners' level of motivation.
"In truth, the listing agent may give out more information than you'd expect about his clients' plans. If they've got to get out of town fast for a job transfer, you can be somewhat more assertive in the price you bid," Davis says.