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Housing now a buyer's market, but buyers beware

WASHINGTON—Unsure whether to buy a home now or wait?

If you wait, mortgage rates could go higher. Right now, inventories are growing and houses are sitting unsold longer.

"Buyers are not having to make multiple offers. Days on market are increasing. Those are all good signs for buyers," said Thomas Early, a spokesman for the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents in Vienna, Va. "It means negotiating strategies change. They can be much more aggressive."

Early's group represents buyers. He thinks buyers are in the driver's seat now and that rates won't climb much higher.

But there could be an advantage to waiting, especially for first-time home buyers with less cash to plunk down.

"For consumers, it may be waiting to see how the market shakes out a bit before deciding to buy at a price that's at the top of the market, particularly if they have to stretch to do that," said Allen Fishbein, director of housing and credit for the advocacy group Consumer Federation of America.

The potential payoff to waiting is that rates may hold steady while the pool of available houses grows, deepening a buyer's market.

Realtors and mortgage lenders are likely to always say that now is the best time to buy. They're not entirely wrong. There's never been a national decline in home prices one year to the next, although examples abound of declines in individual metro markets.

That means consumers should thoroughly research local market trends and have a firm handle on their personal finances.

One tool is a quarterly report published by the National Association of Realtors that lists median home sale prices in many U.S. markets. The first 2006 data will be published in May, but for fourth-quarter 2005 data, go to:

http://realtor.org/Research.nsf/files/REL05Q4T.pdf/$FILE/REL05Q4T.pdf

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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