Tips for Getting a Good Buy in Gentler Market

It's a kinder, gentler housing market for today's home buyers: Prices are relatively flat, the selection of homes is good and mortgages rates are low. If you're looking for a new home, here are some pointers that can help you get the best deal:

* Work with a good real estate agent. Find one you feel comfortable with, and work exclusively through him if he does a good job. "If the agent knows that you'll be loyal to him, he'll give you better service," said Chuck Lamb of several Century 21 offices in the San Fernando Valley. "Besides, if you use multiple agents, you'll probably wind up looking at the same properties over and over again."

* Get "prequalified" by your agent or lender. This helps you figure out the size of the loan you can obtain. In turn, you won't waste time looking at homes you obviously can't afford.

* Don't be afraid to drive a hard bargain. Although there's no hard-and-fast rule, some realtors say your first offer in a soft market should be at least 10% or 15% below the seller's asking price.

* Remember that price isn't everything. Sellers sometimes balk at making deep cuts in their asking price, but think nothing of making more lucrative concessions--providing favorable financing, making major repairs and the like.

"A lot of sellers are also paying for things that the buyer usually pays for, like points, home inspection fees and a home warranty plan," said Linda Orr, owner of Real Estate Marketeers in Irvine. "I ask for the moon and work down from there."

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