Timing the housing market

You want to buy a home but are scared to take the plunge in a crumbling market. Here's how to think it through.

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By Walter Updegrave, Money Magazine senior editor

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NEW YORK (Money) -- Question: At some point I plan to buy a house in the $250,000 to $400,000 range. I have generally good credit and plan to make a down payment of 20 percent or more.

But given the instability in the housing sector and generally tightening credit landscape, I'm wondering whether I should buy now or wait several months, maybe even a year, to see where the market settles. What do you think? - Daniel Akers

Answer: I don't recommend trying to time the housing market any more than I would timing the stock market. So if your aim by holding off is to try to get the best deal by buying just as prices have hit their low, I think that's unrealistic.

After all, even assuming you can figure out the ideal time to buy - that is, when prices have hit not only hit a trough but are on the verge of rebounding - by the time you find the house you want, line up the financing and close the deal, the "best" time may have already passed.

That said, given current state of the housing market, you certainly don't need to be in a rush. As my Money Magazine colleague Amanda Gengler pointed out in our December cover story on the outlook for 2008, house prices are already down more than 4 percent from a year ago.

And given the huge inventory of homes already for sale plus the ones likely to come into the market as more homeowners default on their mortgages and go into foreclosure, prices are forecast to tumble another 6 percent or so in 2008.

Perhaps the Bush administration's subprime plan or some other proposal to help borrowers facing foreclosure may be able to limit the damage somewhat. But I don't think anyone believes prices will rebound in a significant way until 2009 at the earliest.

So how do you factor all this information into your plans for buying a house? I recommend that you start looking around in different areas where you may be interested in living to get a sense of what the market is like and where it may be headed.

The forecast I referred to above is the broad-brush picture. But the national housing market is really a collection of many local markets, and the prospects can vary considerably from one locale to the next, depending on such factors as how hot the market got, the local employment picture and the volume of inventory and potential foreclosures.

You can check out prices online and take the pulse of the market in different cities and neighborhoods by going to trulia.com, zillow.com,homegain.com as well as other sites that are featured in the "Know Your Home's Future" section of Money's January cover story, "The Best Money Web Sites."

But you'll also want to take time to do plenty of real-world legwork. Drive around different neighborhoods to see how many "for sale" signs you see and then talk to agents at several real estate offices to get an idea of how long homes are sitting on the market before they sell, how much below asking price they're going for and what kinds of concessions sellers are offering.

While you're at it, you should also contact a few mortgage lenders to see what size of loan you can likely qualify for given your income, expenses, assets and liabilities, credit rating and the size of the down payment you plan on making.

Part of the fallout of the subprime debacle is that lenders are now more stringent about the documentation they require before making a loan. You'll want to be sure you'll have access to documents like recent pay stubs, tax returns and savings and investment account statements so you'll be all set to apply for a loan when you're ready to buy.

As I said before, you shouldn't feel under any pressure to make an immediate move. But when you eventually do see some houses you really like and feel you're ready to join the ranks of owners, you want to make the most of what is now most certainly a buyer's market.

Find out what comparable houses have sold for recently and then consider starting your bidding at 10 percent to 15 percent below that price. Don't be surprised if the owner doesn't fall at your feet and thankfully accept your offer.

Even in a down market, many owners have inflated notions of the value of their home and will stubbornly stick to an unrealistic price. So if you want to pick up a real bargain, you've got to be ready to walk away and go on to another listing.

Generally, you'll have the most leverage when the owner is under some pressure to sell - a looming foreclosure, a job relocation, a commitment to purchase another house, an investor looking to escape burdensome carrying costs, etc.

On the other hand, you don't want to overplay the haggling game and end up losing out on a great house for the sake of a few thousand bucks. For more advice on how to get the best deal, I suggest you check out the "Your Home" section of Money's 2008 outlook story. (This story also has tips on how sellers and owners can best cope in today's market.)

And if you're considering buying a new home, you should also check out my colleague George Mannes's story in Money's January issue, "Boy, Have They Got Freebies for You," which explains how to evaluate the discounts, upgrades and other incentives homebuilders are tossing around to entice you to buy a newly built home.

This kind of opportunity doesn't come around very often in the housing market. So take your time, do your research and make the most of it.

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