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4 tips for buying a house in a buyer's market
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Villena recommends that buyers start out by playing around with Web sites such as Homekeys, Zillow and, just to find out how much they can learn about the houses in their target neighborhoods. Focus on finding faster ways to weed out the houses you're not interested in -- because they don't fit your criteria for asking price, size, neighborhood or amenities.

"If you're a serious buyer, you really have to increase the speed at which you arrive at reasonably priced homes," Villena says. "Those are the ones that are going to see a lot of action. You need to be early to that party. Start out by being more specific about the characteristics defining your desired home."

With so many houses on the market, it's useful to hire a buyer's agent to sort them out, says Pam O'Connor, president of Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, a national network of 650 regional and independent firms. You have your pick of agents now, and "you should be asking what's their experience, how long they've been in the market, what price they specialize in," O'Connor says.

If you find a house you like, ask the agent to perform a comparative market analysis -- basically, to do what Zillow does, but with the addition of human judgment. Do your own analysis online, using Zillow, Homekeys or a similar site if you can find one. Compare your research with your agent's. If they corroborate each other, fine. If something seems amiss, find out why. (An experienced agent is almost surely more accurate than Zillow.)

Negotiate effectively
Right now, "there's more room for negotiation" in most housing markets because the sales pace slows in autumn, and prices have been falling, says Steve Habetz, president of ARCServ, a network of real estate attorneys.

Next: "You're shopping for a house, not for a Caribbean cruise. ..."
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