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Tips for Buying

Johnna: In good markets and bad, real-estate agents are constantly announcing that "now" is the best time to buy. With housing prices weakening, inventories rising and sales slumping, this attitude has drawn a lot of ridicule in the press.
But you know what? Now may actually be a very good time to buy, or at least start looking seriously.

Though no one can really tell when the downward-trending housing market will reach its nadir -- most economists predict it will bottom out sometime in 2008 or 2009 -- there's no doubt that sellers have let go of bubblelicious notions of what their homes are worth. According to S&P/Case-Shiller, existing home prices dropped 4.5% nationally in the third quarter over the year before; price appreciation was even slowing in Charlotte, one of the few cities that the research group covers that showed price appreciation year-over-year. It rose at a tepid rate of 4.7%.

The media makes this out as a tragedy, but it's really not. For buyers, a market that's nearing its bottom is only a concern for flippers, who need a rising market to make money. For buyers making a long-term investment, it's a reason to rejoice.

Yes, loans are hard to find, but they are still being made, especially if you have good credit. While the qualifications for getting a loan are becoming stricter -- but no more strict than they were in the mid-1990s -- mortgage money is still cheap by historical standards and will likely remain so in the near future. The Mortgage Bankers Association projects that 30-year fixed rates will hover around 6% throughout 2008 and the first two quarters of 2009.

Meanwhile, as you have noted, bargains abound, particularly in foreclosure properties. While many Web sites sell foreclosure information (sometimes after letting you sample the Web site for a week-long free trial), you don't have to pay an online membership fee to find them. Title companies, real-estate agents and lenders -- including credit unions -- all have information on homes in various stages of foreclosure.

Homes that are being auctioned are listed in the legal notices section of the main local newspaper and can usually be found on the newspaper's Web site.

But generally, you will get a better deal if you buy a house before it goes to auction, or after -- if it doesn't sell on the courthouse steps. Bidders at an auction sometimes get caught in the heat of the moment and push up prices.

For a simple and up-to-date explanation of the foreclosure process, you may want to read "Finding Foreclosures" by real-estate investor Danielle Babb and mortgage broker Bill Nazur (Entrepreneur Press; 2007). But keep in mind that the book was prepared with RealtyTrac, an online database of foreclosure and pre-foreclosure properties, and promotes that Web site heavily.

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