With mortgage rates and home prices low, Ed and Mary Smeltz knew the time was right to buy a home. But, like many renters, they hadn't saved much money.
Enter Brian Peterson.
The north Texas Realtor showed the Smeltzes how they could buy with minimum earnest money, a low down payment and almost no closing costs. When they found the house they wanted -- a four-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bath house in Fort Worth -- Mr. Peterson found a way to cut several thousand dollars from the sellers' asking price.
Mr. Peterson's efforts "didn't cost me a dime," Ed Smeltz said. "I got all these services basically for free."
Despite an attractive home market, many would-be buyers are still finding it difficult to take advantage of the good deals. Some don't have enough money for a down payment; others are grappling with a credit-history problem that keeps them from qualifying for a loan.
That's where brokers such as Mr. Peterson come in. They secure hard-to-find financing, search out the best prices and squeeze extra concessions out of sellers. Even well-heeled, creditworthy buyers are pursuing these brokers' services.
"It's very true about those good deals out there," said Mr. Peterson, a broker with Buyers Voice Real Estate in Fort Worth. "But how are they going to know if it's a good deal? They need help."
In fact, Mr. Peterson is so adamant that would-be homeowners be armed with as much information as possible that he works only for buyers.
All real estate agents work closely with buyers, but most actually represent the seller. That means they are obligated to obtain the highest price possible for their client. Buyer brokers are charged with getting the lowest price possible for the buyer.
What extra services can Mr. Peterson offer?
For one thing, he can help his clients decide how much to offer for a home by looking at selling prices of similar properties. Like all real estate agents, Mr. Peterson has access to sales prices via the Multiple Listing Service, a computerized system that logs recent sales, as well as houses on the market. Unlike seller brokers, Mr. Peterson can share the information with buyers.
By no means do all the good deals hinge on using a buyer broker. Traditional brokers are doing their share of dealing, too.
"I only seem to be doing creative deals today," said Robbie Renfro, president of the Greater Fort Worth Association of Realtors. "Over the last six years . . . there have been a number of people who have had their credit affected. The lenders are walking cautiously."
For several years, many buyers have been drawn to homes with non-qualifying assumable loans. Under these mortgages, buyers typically aren't required to meet standard lending guidelines; they simply take over payments.
"A lot of people don't feel they can go through the rigors of qualifying for a new loan," said Valerie Burton, president of the Arlington (Texas) Board of Realtors. "They're afraid that they can't qualify under new lending guidelines."
But let the buyer beware. If the loan was made in the 1980s at the top of the housing market, the loan balance may be more than the house is worth, Mr. Peterson said.
Another option for those with credit problems is lease-purchase.
Although such deals usually appeal to buyers who don't have enough money for a down payment, Mr. Renfro said he recently put one together for a buyer long on cash but short on credit.
"It's a contract to purchase with a two-year closing," he said, explaining that the buyer's credit history should be clean by the end of the lease period.
If you're already a homeowner but want to buy a new one, check into a builder trade. Although you probably won't get full value for your old residence, a trade could be cheaper than making double payments until you sell, Mr. Renfro said.