Today, buying a home might feel a lot like buying stocks: You'd prefer to wait until the market finally bottoms out.
The only problem is getting the timing right.
The price of existing single-family homes in 20 major metropolitan areas has declined every month since September, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index.
Nationally, home prices were down 8.9 percent last year.
That would seem to argue in favor of a wait-and-see strategy. But even in a buyer's market, real estate is a case-specific transaction. In areas rife with foreclosures, prices might fall further, real estate agents say. Yet there are some examples where homes are quickly snatched up for list price - or more.
The key is to not get so hung up on the list price, though it is important, but to recognize a good value when you see it.
Start with what you want.
To begin, forget the numbers and focus first on what type of lifestyle you want. Are good schools a priority? Do you want to be within steps of public transportation? Or is it more important to be near, say, parks?
In general, the more a community has to offer, from good schools to a vibrant night life, the more stable home prices have tended to be. A recent study by Trulia.com, a real estate search engine, found that in Chicago neighborhoods with high-ranking elementary schools, the median price of homes increased from 2006 to last year.
That bodes well when you need to resell. But as a buyer, you might not be able to negotiate steep price discounts or wait long to make an offer, or risk losing out to others who recognize a good value.
Russ Murray, a buyer's agent in the suburbs of Denver, said one client recently made a low offer on a foreclosed home in a "decent" neighborhood.
"It turned out we were No. 18 on a list, for a home that had been on the market only a week," Murray said.
On the flip side, you likely will have greater bargaining power in communities where many homes are for sale or in areas where developments are under construction.
"A few years ago, condo units were sold even before ground was broken," said David Hanna, president-elect of the Chicago Association of Realtors. "Now we're seeing people take their time to get into these projects. And developers are quick to cut their price and offer incentives."
Size up the market.
You'll be a smarter buyer if you research not only a neighborhood's amenities but also the price of homes recently sold in the area. Find out: How long did those homes stay on the market? What was the sale price?
An agent, if you work with one, should be able to answer these questions. Don't settle for assurances that "now is a good time to buy." Make sure to get specific examples of home sales, preferably within the past year or earlier.
If you are selling your home on your own, check for the sale prices of comparable homes in your neighborhood at sites such as Domania.com, Trulia.com and Homeprice.net. You also might receive comparables if you list your home on the multiple-listing service, or MLS, using a flat-fee service.
Maximize Web resources.
Although some homes in desirable neighborhoods can sell quickly, so many properties are for sale that you should not necessarily rush to buy. According to data from the National Association of Realtors, it would take 9.6 months to sell the total supply of pre-existing homes on the market.
Even more homes could be listed this spring, typically real estate's busiest season, so you might be able to take your time searching, starting first online at any number of industry-related sites, including Realtor.com, Zillow.com, Trulia.com and RealEstate.yahoo.com.
"There are so many tools out there that are available to buyers," said Jennifer Michaels, senior vice president of FSBO.com, a Web site that facilitates for-sale-by-owner transactions. "They have to do their research."
When you find a property that meets your needs and seems fairly priced, or has owners willing to negotiate, make a move. Even if home prices ease a bit after you purchase, it will be of little matter to you if you like where you live.
Carolyn Bigda writes for Tribune Media Services.