Prepare ye the way

Make sure buyers have a clear path to the front door, or they may not bother getting out of the car. (Geir Pettersen/ Getty Images photo / November 4, 2011)

Dear Santa,

Please bring me a buyer, flush with cash, and ready with preapproval letters. He or she should be willing to pay full asking price (or more), close quickly and without complication. Make my buyer easy to work with and free of unreasonable demands.

Yours truly,

Holiday-pressed homeowner

If selling your home is still on your to-do list for 2011, take note: While fewer buyers abound during the dark days of winter, sellers needn't go into hibernation until spring.

"There's typically a slowdown in shopping activity from Thanksgiving to New Year's, when people are focused on family and friends and holiday celebrations," said Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors. January and February typically see the fewest closings of the year, reflecting slower sales at year's end, he said.

But that's not necessarily the end of the world for sellers, said Gail Spreen, owner of Chicago-based Streeterville Properties. Fair-weather buyers who meander through open houses in May and June may not be all that interested in your home, anyway. The holidays, she said, can be a great time to sell if you have flexibility and are prepared.

Those left combing the market during November and December are typically more serious about the home hunt, Spreen said. They might include families relocating for job changes, first-timers ready to leap during a slow market, and those who've recently sold a home and need a new place to live.

Motivated homebuyers. Some buyers simply thrive in the more relaxed environment, with fewer competitors for top properties and more attention from agents.

"You'll have fewer showings, but they'll be more powerful," said Dennis Dooley, managing broker with Prudential Rubloff Properties. Holiday season buyers are typically "motivated and financially ready," he added.

Hoping for a signed contract in your stocking? Follow the rules of holiday home selling and you could capture the interest of one of these serious buyers.

Deck the halls with restraint. Holiday decorations make homes festive and buyers merry. But too many ornaments, wreaths and garlands can obscure views, make rooms feel smaller and distract buyers from their true purpose: deciding whether or not your home is right for them.

"You don't want people to focus on your decorating," said Karen Burstein, co-owner of a Downers Grove-based home-staging business called the No. 1 Ladies' Home Staging Agency. "You are selling floors, walls and windows. If people are overly focused on your ornament collection or how the tree is done, they won't see the product they are potentially buying."

Basic principles of home staging take on added importance during the holiday season. They include these tenets: Anything more than five is a collection and should be packed away. Keep tabletop decor to no more than three objects.

And think twice before displaying decorations specific to your religious or cultural heritage, said interior stylist Julea Joseph, owner of Reinventing Space in Palos Park, since it makes it more difficult for others who don't share your background or beliefs to envision themselves living in the space.

What, then, is appropriate? Joseph suggests a wintry container garden on the front step, a pretty wreath, glass hurricanes and, perhaps, a simple tree.

"Prepare your family that it's holiday-lite this year," she said.

Clear the schedule. Since buyers are likely to be fewer in number during the dark days of winter, be ready to accommodate the interest you do have. Barbara Sapstein, a broker with Baird & Warner, tells the tale of two homes for sale in a suburban neighborhood, both with similar features and asking prices. One seller was having a dinner party and didn't want to be bothered with a showing. The buyer was highly offended and bought the other home, Sapstein's listing.

"I like to think mine would have sold anyway," she said, "but the point is, if you are out there on the market, you need to make your property available."