4. Determine your own home-buying budget. Do this before you start talking with lenders. They will tell you what you qualify for, but only you can determine what you can really afford. Be realistic and work in a buffer for contingencies and negative life events. And instead of facing possible piecemeal rejection locally lender by lender, shop for a mortgage online and see what several competing lenders have to offer. But don't expect appreciably less-stringent terms online.
5. Clean up your credit score. You've heard this one before. But it's more important now than ever if you hope to get home financing in '09. Correct reporting-agency errors that may be dragging down your score. Pay your bills on time. Pay down active credit cards but don't close out paid-off accounts.
6. Research equals savings. Agents will almost always tell you that the time to buy is now. But do your own research. Go online to scour newspapers and other local sources, and look for housing inventory backlogs, the average "for sale" time that the home is on the market and average selling prices. Also be wary of the number of area foreclosures and major-employer layoffs.
You'll get a better sense of how much negotiating clout you'll really have and which way the market is moving. Information is power -- in your case, purchasing power.
7. Don't overlook neighborhood issues. If and when you do qualify for a mortgage, don't overlook these important issues in your exuberance: quality of schools, traffic noise, upcoming zoning issues, neighborhood stability, home turnover, crime levels and the presence of any sex offenders. This is where a strong, veteran agent can assist.
8. Watch for foreclosed-property inventory to loosen. Banks will soon be under greater pressure to cut their losses on property they own through foreclosure and to increase revenues. With a smaller percentage of distressed homes selling at auction, banks are loaded up with more of these "nonperforming assets."
In major markets, more agents are specializing in prying loose so-called REOs, or "real estate owned" by banks. Again, cash on hand talks loudest.
9. Look for other looming opportunities. Can't get a loan? The financial markets should begin to untangle at least a little bit in 2009. The newly Fed-fortified banks will, or at least should, start moving that money. They are banks, after all. But don't expect a return to "zero down."