real estate

The best way to recoup home fees? Stay put

Look at actual sale prices in the neighborhood you're interested in, says Lucy, adding that such information is typically available from the county record or assessor. The future is never sure, but examining price movements can help buyers define their timeline, Lucy says.

You must live with what's affordable now

Young buyers, especially, might find that the home they can buy now won't fit their needs later.

According to 2007 U.S. Census abstract data, at age 18 a person could expect to move another 9.1 times in his or her remaining lifetime, compared with 2.7 expected moves for 45-year-olds.

Another old real estate rule, or oft-repeated maxim, is "buy the biggest and best you can." The idea is that if young buyers purchase a home that can accommodate them years later, they'll save by not having to move again. While this advice dovetails with a theory experts endorse -- holding a home and steadily paying off the mortgage is the surest route to housing wealth -- financial planners generally frown on "stretching" to afford a more expensive home.

Barry Korb of Lighthouse Financial Planning in Potomac, Md., says he counseled one couple who wanted to spend about 55 percent of their income on housing. "I asked them how they'd handle their car loans and credit card debt," he says.

Lenders are now focusing more on those questions, says Bedda D'Angelo, president of Fiduciary Solutions in Durham, N.C. Even if borrowers want to borrow big, the new and more conservative lending standards probably wouldn't allow it, she says.

What's the rush?

To stimulate homebuying, the federal government is offering a tax credit worth up to $8,000 to first-time buyers who fall below certain incomes and who buy during 2009.

Young says this credit might spur some buyers to act before year-end. Still, if buyers don't think they'll be able to stay in an area long enough to avoid the risk of selling at a loss, it can be more prudent to rent.

Indeed, there's a newfound, more deliberate approach to homebuying and home owning. "The world has changed," says Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

During the boom years earlier this decade, Retsinas says, there was a distorted emphasis on profit, and homes were "purely for buying and then selling." Now there is a "refocus on the consumption value of homes," he says, meaning that homes are to "consume" -- or live in and enjoy -- for as long as possible.

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