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Do rents really go down in the winter?

The conventional wisdom is “yes.” Here’s what the data says

UIG via Getty Images

As fall turns to winter, renters across the country may find themselves in the unenviable position of orchestrating a move into a new apartment or house in the bitter cold. Most do this simply because a life event has dictated it: a new job or a new significant other that has prompted a move in December.

But some might see a silver lining in moving during the winter, thinking they’ll get a rent price break by signing in the winter months. Seasonal variance in rent has long been conventional wisdom in the housing industry, but will you get a better deal if you plan a move as the rain is turning to snow?

The unsatisfying answer is that it depends. In a vacuum, there is a seasonality trend in rents whereby the late winter-early spring months are slightly lower and the late-fall months are slightly higher. The problem is that no housing market exists in a vacuum, so, practically speaking, timing a move in the winter to get a rent break is a dubious strategy that may not pan out.

“We always tell people you shouldn’t try to time the market,” says Aaron Terrazas, Zillow’s director of economic research. “You should move or buy a home because big life changes are happening—you need an extra bedroom because you’re having a kid, [or] you’re retiring and moving to a different climate. Those are the reasons to move, not because of a couple dollars difference in timing the market.”

Historically, rents usually peak in October or November and bottom out in February or March, according to Terrazas. Why this occurs depends on the specific city, but generally summer is a more popular time to move than in the winter, particularly over the holidays. Units tend to linger on the market longer in the winter, which renters can use to get price concessions from landlords.

When students graduate college in May, they enter the jobs market over the following summer and fall and add to rental demand. In the winter, this effect peters out. Retirees generally move in the summer as well. Families that rent will prefer to rent in the summer to avoid disrupting the school year for their children. In cities with harsh winters, it may simply be more practical to move in the summer.

Looking at Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.—cities with remarkably stable rental markets—the seasonality trend in rents is evident by the wavy lines, and you can see this trend in multifamily housing, single-family housing, and across every price tier.

So why not time all your moves in the winter and shower yourself with riches? Well, the discrepancy between peak rent in the fall and valley rent in the winter can be marginal at best, meaning you may not benefit all that much even if you are able to catch the bottom part of the wavy line. If this was a trend worth trying to capitalize on, the wavy lines would be more spiked and jagged.

There are also usually fewer units on the market in the winter lull, so while you might pay slightly less, you’d have fewer options to choose from. And the effects of seasonality are only a minor factor in what determines rents, and can ultimately be drowned out by other market forces, particularly in a more volatile market.

According to Terrazas, new construction hitting the market—particularly at the high end—has put downward pressure on peak rents in the summer for the last few years, so the difference between the peak and the valley has shrunk in some markets. And in markets with idiosyncrasies, there can be no actionable seasonality trend. Take New Orleans, for example, where recovery from natural disasters and the impact of short-term rentals has caused volatility in rents.

Here are how rents move in other major markets. It’s interesting to see a more pronounced seasonality trend at the upper price tier in most markets.