What does December mean to you as an investor? Historically, it has meant a wave of tax-loss selling. Folks who have racked up massive realized gains over the course of the year begin to unload their dogs to help offset the taxable implications. It makes sense and it's why stocks that have already fallen something fierce can still head lower this late in the year.

But this hasn't been any ordinary year. Forget the last two months of consistent gains. Remember the last two years of consistent drubbings. With a lot of investors cutting their losses along the way, odds are that there aren't too many people sitting on huge realized gains right now. Sure, they can dump their duds, but because one can deduct no more than $3,000 in net realized losses, what's the point?

While hoarding away the tax-loss carryforwards have merit, it's no longer imperative. While the far more tax savvy Roy Lewis may disagree with me on this, I just don't see it as a worthwhile priority in formulating an efficient tax strategy.

For years, you've been groomed to tag this month as tax-loss selling season, but I've got a new 'do for you: tax-loss buying.

That's right. Instead of the hammered getting whacked around some more only to find some respite come January, I think the beaten-down will defy historical trading trends and rise this month.

Granted, some stocks are going to keep falling. December is just a pit stop on the way to zero for some of these stock market failures. Most companies that haven't gained some kind of favorable traction over these last two market-friendly months of trading won't be coming for an overnight makeover. But in walking through the ruins of 2002, I found some small caps whose prospects aren't as bleak as their charts may lead one to believe.

The one trait that will run constant throughout the following list is that each stock is trading for less than half of what it was fetching at the start of the year. I also set aside any stocks trading for less than $5 a share. Fair enough? Excellent. Let's go. The month has only just begun, but you know how time flies.

Almost Family (Nasdaq: AFAM)
Is Almost Family a broken home? The provider of adult visiting nurse services and operator of adult day health centers has aged considerably in 2002. Having shed two-thirds of its value, everything appears fine at first glance. Last month, the company reported growing attendance at its health centers, and it has been able to acquire efficiently in a fragmented sector that's been begging for consolidation.

But margins have taken a hit as costs have lapped the top-line growth. While its health center revenue rose by 18% last quarter, the segment's operating income fell by 10%. Thankfully, the centers account for the lion's share of the company's business because it's faring worse in its visiting nurses division. With staffing costs higher because the nursing industry is one of the few sectors where the demand far outstrips the supply and lower Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates, Almost Family has only earned $0.33 per diluted share through the first three quarters of the year.

Trading at book value and turning a profit even as it waits for the tide to turn in reimbursement rates, this really shouldn't be the black sheep of the family.

ESS Technology (Nasdaq: ESST)
Remember when DVD growth was all the rage and DVD chip maker ESS Tech ruled the roost? Well, rivals got serious and the chip sector became a commodity. That drove margins and profits lower at the company, but don't dismiss its balance sheet. The company has nearly $4 a share in cash and short-term investments.

While it is guiding analysts towards current-quarter profits of no more than a nickel a share, it's also ready to roll out a high-margin chip product early next year, and it's been dabbling in the consumer digital audio market to help diversify its product base.

United Rentals (NYSE: URI)
What do you do when 77% of your business comes from construction equipment rentals and the cyclical demand in the non-residential and highway construction sectors just isn't there? Well, you don't do much, that's for sure. Like ESS Tech, United's shares started out the year trading in the low $20s. Unfortunately, the company can't lease out pessimism because business would be booming if that were the case.

But as slow as things have been for United, it is still looking to earn a buck a share next year. And folks looking for a cyclical industrial play will find that United rides those coattails without the income statement exchanges of black and red ink found in the traditional cyclical heavy lifters.

Bally Total Fitness (NYSE: BFT)
Is it hard to get pumped up over the country's leading fitness center operator when the stock has been coming down faster than a butterfinger's free weights?

The knock on gym memberships has been fair. In a world in which New Year's resolutions are broken by February, operators like Bally's are fooling themselves with long-term contracts. So, you are right to be skeptical when you see that the largest balance sheet line item under current assets is for net installment contracts receivable. History has proven that a third of that sum eventually gets written off due to cancellations.

But Bally is healthy beyond that. After its buyout of hip Crunch Fitness last year, the company claims four million members at nearly 430 facilities. After earning $1.29 a share through the first nine months of the year, analysts expect Bally to earn $1.84 this year and $2.12 come 2003. With gym membership growing and the company able to inch rates up slightly, it is actually having greater success in selling products and services to its user base. The results are buffed, indeed.

Four stocks. Four imperfect yet sensibly cheap stocks. There are more out there to be had. What are you waiting for? January has come a month early.

Rick Aristotle Munarriz thinks December is so nice that it deserves its 31 days. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.