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Special section Experts' 8 smart moves for '08

Chastened housing market bodes well for buyers; sellers are in for more pain

8 top real estate tips

8 moves for homebuyers, sellers in '08

Heading into 2008, the market just isn't turning around as so many predicted. The industry, it seems, has been caught up in a game of "projecting," to use a psycho-speak term. Meanwhile, this pesky subprime headache lingers on as we start to draw a clearer picture of how recklessly this shaky housing-market foundation was laid. It's a hangover that will last well beyond New Year's Day.

In contrast to the billions in risky ARM loans that were advanced to questionable borrowers toward the end of the boom years, many credit-worthy buyers are now getting a different kind of arm -- a straight-arm -- when they seek out mortgages amidst a backdrop of spiraling foreclosures and plummeting prices.

My blanket advice for would-be sellers: Stay put. Ride this out where you're sitting if possible, because values will stabilize again. If current circumstances dictate otherwise, then you'll have to ratchet up your marketing plan a notch to adjust to the times. As for buyers: Well, you're "in your element" and the getting is good.

Here are eight strategies for buyers and sellers who want to make a housing move in '08:

8 strategies for savvy sellers

1. Understand what "market value" means. It's not what your friend sold his house for two years ago or even two months ago. It's not the value your latest tax assessment was based on or what an appraiser said the house was worth a year ago. It is exactly what someone is willing to pay for your house today. Hence, price realistically and broaden incentives, such as closing costs and throw-ins like appliances, flat-screen televisions, etc. There is an old saying: "There's nothing wrong with a home that the right price can't fix."

2. Don't be an as-is seller. That is, unless you absolutely have to be one. Potential homebuyers aren't looking for fixer-uppers in the current market unless they are rock-bottom, bargain-basement priced. Large volumes of foreclosed homes are already being sold in poor condition at auction.

3. Hire a top performer. These days, you need an agent who outshines the others and routinely posts better-than-average sales numbers year after year. Agencies may try to steer you toward less-seasoned agents, but if you're paying the commission, then the hire should be your call. The best agents have an innate sense for that right price and right marketing plan. They can suggest the necessary repairs and tweaks while targeting your home to the right buying group. Caveat: In selecting an agent, the percentage of listings sold is generally a better performance barometer than a high volume of sales.

4. Know your market's nuances. No two markets are exactly alike. Yes, most sellers are now swimming upstream. But there are always counter currents to consider. In many areas, modestly priced homes have bigger buying pools because tighter mortgage qualifications are keeping buyers out of more expensive homes. A little research and a savvy agent can give you an edge and an education.

5. Use the Internet. According to compete.com, total time spent online rose 24.3 percent from the fall of 2006 to the fall of 2007. Yes, people are still scoping out newspaper classified ads and real estate listing magazines, but more and more Americans have been wired to at least start their home shopping online.

6. Use other people's money. You don't have to sell for a big loss to get out from under your rising mortgage payments. If you can, rent out your home for a sum that covers your house payments, insurance, taxes and maintenance costs. Do try to roll in a slight buffer to cover unanticipated expenses. And realize you'll need capital to refresh the place when the market stabilizes and you take off your landlord hat to prep the home for sale again. Or consider offering lease-to-own terms to your renter and you may not have to worry about the future sale.

7. Become a "lender." Tough times call for unconventional measures. Consider carrying part of the buyer's note with interest, secured by an asset belonging to the buyer. Do so only after a thorough credit check and only if you can afford to wait for the balance of the purchase price. This, by the way, is not a game for the faint of heart.

8. Simplify and neutralize. In this sales environment, you've probably already been told to focus on curb appeal, add fresh landscaping and de-clutter the house by removing family photos and heirlooms or other items you don't need or use on a daily basis.

But let's take it a step further. Paint your rooms neutral colors. Hire a redesign or home-staging firm to help you present your home in optimal condition and give potential buyers a chance to envision their possibilities there. And while you're at it, get a pre-listing inspection, which will reveal any defects your home has and allow you time to make repairs. Then provide a copy of the report to buyers, attaching a list of the fixes you made.

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