Dear Debt Adviser,
Is right now a good time to buy a home, or should I wait until next year? It’s for me, not an investment.
— Dan

Dear Dan,
Over the past three years, as market values kept plummeting, real estate wags who were asked that sort of “buy” question often weighed in with overly optimistic answers.

But there are several reasons to believe that this year may truly represent one of the best opportunities you’ll see at any point of your life — if not the best. Mortgage rates are at record lows. Values have sunk to a point where homes that were out of reach just a few years ago are now affordable, if you’re in a financial position to buy.

The American buying public has jumped back into the ownership game in growing numbers this year. Sales of existing homes have been on the increase in the last few months, even in some of the harder-hit markets. In California, people are snapping up properties for less than half of what they paid in 2005. Recent reports out of the San Francisco Bay Area have people buying homes that were valued at $700,000 three years ago for $300,000.

If you are a first-time homebuyer, there’s even more incentive to move quickly. The government’s economic-stimulus package for housing is offering an $8,000, refundable, first-time buyer tax credit for qualifying homebuyers who purchase a house before Dec. 1, 2009. Essentially, you’d be getting a 10-percent credit on the purchase price, capped at $8,000. Individuals who make less than $75,000 in taxable income or married couples who make less than $150,000 in taxable income are eligible.

There are a few caveats: To qualify, you can’t have owned a principle residence in the past three years, and you’ll have to live in the house you buy for three years. Condos, new-construction homes and even mobile homes qualify. What’s more, instead of waiting until 2009 to get your tax credit, you can move this credit to your 2008 taxes by amending your return, assuming you’ve already filed. That could very well tip the balance in the “buy” equation and serve as a bit of a hedge against further value drops, especially if you are buying for the long term.

Of course, there is no guarantee that values won’t drop further. Unemployment remains painfully high and is getting worse. There are tons of foreclosure homes cued up to work their way through the pipeline despite stimulus programs designed to help their owners, and it may take a little while longer before this painful down cycle fully plays out. As for next year, there is talk that some of the housing stimulus programs will extend into next year. But remember the real estate axiom, “Buy low, sell high.” We are definitely in, or at least entering, that “buy-low” phase for opportunistic future homeowners.

Good luck on your decision.