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Buying your dream house
5 Tips: Buying in today's housing market
By Gerri Willis, CNNMoney.com contributing columnist

Buying a home
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - You can imagine it: a white house, a picket fence, a brick walkway to a green front door, and a beautiful foyer. Backyard barbecues, a two-car garage, and a living room with plenty of space for your surround-sound theater.

Stop salivating. What's holding you back from buying that dream house? Do the words "housing bubble" keep you up at night?

You're not alone: experts are cringing too. Some are waiting for a pop, others for more ballooning growth.

All the talk has left many wannabe buyers on the sidelines. Hey, you can still buy that home in today's market, but read today's five tips first to learn how to do it wisely.

1. Walk around town

Okay, so we talk about the housing market as if every home in the country was selling the same way. It's not. Real estate is a local thing -- and I mean really local.

Take this example: Home prices in Bradenton, Florida jumped 45.6 percent in one year, according to the National Association of Realtors. But 13 miles away, in Sarasota, home prices only rose 36 percent. And 46 miles north in the Tampa, Clearwater, St. Petersburg area, home prices only rose 15.7 percent.

The moral of the story is you'd be wise to walk around town, and investigate growth in each market. Stephen Israel, president of Buyer's Edge, a company that represents homebuyers, recommends you take a list of zip codes to the local real estate agent.

Ask them to look up the one-year and five-year change in home prices in those zip codes. Avoid any standout zip codes, like Bradenton from the example above. Places where there have been major market swings can come with falling or leaping prices, and bidding wars.

2. Think location, location, location

Let's get down to it -- real estate 101. The most important thing to look for is great location, says Israel. After that, you want to look for the best lot, and then finally, look at the home.

Goes against your instinct, doesn't it? Remember, you can fix a house. But you can't move your house into the city's best school district, push it away from a freeway, or turn your shabby neighborhood chic.

When looking at location, make sure you look at proximity to city centers, transportation, the best schools, culture, and work centers. But think it through, and take into account where you live. Living near a bus stop may be a major plus in Brooklyn, NY, but it may be a disturbance in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

When you're looking for the best lot, "Stay away from any major negatives," says Israel. The location and house may be great, but if there's a swampy backyard, the neighborhood looks dingy, or there are no trees on the lot, you could pay for it when it comes time for you to move again.

3. Don't show your cards

It's a seller's market. So be ready to play poker, my friends, and don't show your cards.

First off, be careful who you talk to. "Most consumers don't understand when they call number on a yard sign or speak to a person at an open house that they are talking to the seller's agent," the Massachusetts Association of Buyers Agents (MABA) warns.

The seller's agent is looking to find the best price possible for the seller's home. So don't tell them what you want to spend or what your motivations are for buying. It gives them bait to jack up the price.

And when you tour a house, be sure you don't make the so-called "$10,000 mistake" -- and exclaim, "I love this house," advises MABA. You'll pay for showing your emotion.

If you want to hire someone to be on your side, look for a buyer's agent, who can split the commission with the seller's agent in the sale. To find a list of buyer's agents, check out the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents, Web site: NAEBA.org.

4. Pay a smart premium

When you tour a house, make sure you take the time to evaluate the property correctly. Understand what the true value of the house is, and what premium is in the asking price. You're going to pay a premium in many markets because the market's hot. But just make sure you only pay a premium on a house that's worth it.

If it's a good property, it can stand up to any weakness coming in the market. "If you paid $550,000 for a home worth $500,000, you can feel okay knowing even if the market dumps, over time you'll make that 10 percent premium back just because it's a good property," says Israel.

5. Remember it's an investment

You've heard me say it: your home is probably the biggest investment you'll ever make. So treat it like one. Don't panic about the confusing current market conditions.

Israel says if you hold onto a house over the long-term, say five years, you can almost ignore the blips in the market. If your house devalues by 10 percent in the next three years, who cares, you'll probably live in it for seven, and by then, you might come out ahead.

Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to 5tips@cnn.comTop of page

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