As summer comes to a close and kids go back to school, the home buying season typically winds down before heading into hibernation mode during the dead of winter. That makes it one of the best times of the year to go shopping for a home, because with fewer buyers on the prowl is it possible to get better deals from more motivated sellers.

Here are some tips for buying in the off season:

Make a shopping list
Narrowing down choices doesn’t eliminate options; it actually makes them more available and accessible because it streamlines the hunt for the ideal house. The fewer qualifiers, the more choices — but with too few qualifiers it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Not knowing whether a condo or a freestanding home is preferred, for instance, makes a search too cumbersome and slow. But knowing that a condo with a working fireplace is a must — whereas an attached garage or a fenced yard is less important — can speed up the process.

Get pre-qualified or pre-approved for a mortgage
Today’s real estate market is defined primarily by one thing, and that is credit and finance. The crisis in the mortgage market is actually pulling the strings of the housing sector, so buyers who already have mortgages lined up have the upper hand. They can negotiate from a position of strength while simultaneously giving sellers an important reassurance that taking the house off the market for a pending sale will not backfire by falling apart due to a lack of mortgage money.

Stick with one realtor
Interview as many brokers as it takes to find one who has professionalism plus the right personal chemistry to offer a comfortable rapport. Then it’s possible to concentrate on working with one Realtor who is dedicated to a singular goal, rather than hopping around and working with lots of brokers and agents who may not take the role so seriously because of demands on their time from other buyers.

Buy value, not cosmetics
When touring homes, be detached from emotional reactions to features and amenities that may be merely cosmetic. The view of natural bounty from the bedroom window represents actual value. But it may be less inspiring during winter, so use imagination to see it in full bloom. A big tree might be a healthy asset or could have dead limbs and roots pushing up against the home’s foundation. Judge value based on vision supported by facts, not sentiments. Do background research. Then get confirming opinions from pros.

Do the homework
Few people like to do math, but when buying a home it is important to study the numbers. Know the upper and lower price range of recently sold properties, understand the tax and insurance costs of buying a particular home, and gain keen insight into potential repair costs and closing costs. When it’s time to negotiate a price, those figures can help a buyer determine where to ask for concessions and when to walk away from overpriced property or hurry to snag a rare bargain.

Don’t lose a deal over a detail
Too many buyers invest lots of time and effort to locate the perfect home at the right price, only to get mired down in relatively insignificant details that can kill a transaction. Maybe the seller refuses to acknowledge that their carpet is hideous so they do not agree to pay to have it changed. But if the buyer views that as a stalemate, it can mean losing a dream over a problem that can be fixed for a relatively small amount of money. Keep things in perspective, remembering that the time invested in looking for a home is also valuable. Sales can collapse because of minor details, so look at the big picture and negotiate toward the ultimate goal — not to win petty disputes.

Make reasonable offers
Keep in mind that sellers whose properties are still on the market heading into the winter season have compelling reasons to entertain any reasonable offer. Heating oil is going to be expensive this year because the price of energy is going up, for instance, and a seller who finds a buyer before the first frost can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Others have mortgage payment worries or need to free up cash and are willing to shave some of the asking price in exchange for a prompt and timely sale.

All experienced sellers know that properties look their worst in winter and hardly anyone house hunts during the year-end holidays. So missing the chance to sell before autumn often means delays of several months until springtime brings more buyers out of the woodwork. Use the off season to an advantage as a buyer, in other words, and reap rewards in a variety of ways.