WASHINGTON—With humble apologies to William Shakespeare, the question in today's housing market is "To buy or not to buy?"
There are several compelling reasons for anyone who needs a house or wants to upgrade his family's living arrangements to venture forth. At the same time, though, there also are perhaps even more compelling reasons to stay on the sidelines a little while longer.
*Selection: A few years ago, when houses were flying off the shelves as fast as agents could stock them, would-be buyers had to move at warp speed to get what they wanted. Hesitation was a deal killer, because someone was always one step behind you.
Now there are a record number of new and existing homes on the market. You can find big homes, small homes, big or large lots, single-family homes, townhouses and condos.
*Mortgage rates: Loan costs are extremely attractive. As long as you are not borrowing more than $400,000, give or take, you can find fixed-rate, 30-year mortgages at less than 6 percent. Loans higher than that are a little more expensive.
*Competition: There simply aren't nearly as many buyers as there used to be. Professional investors have all but vanished. These are the folks who helped inflate housing prices. That leaves the market to people who want an honest-to-goodness home.
*No bidding: Unlike the halcyon days, when buyers were falling all over themselves to outbid each other for that house in a good neighborhood and school district, you are not likely to go up against anyone else. That's a far cry from just a few years ago, when it wasn't unusual for a buyer to make offers on several houses before one stuck.
*Patience: You can take your time, look at all the houses you want, go home and mull over the choices and then, if you so choose, make an offer.
*Due diligence: Similarly, once you find a house worthy of your consideration, you can hire a home inspector to examine the place for warts. You no longer have to push an inspector or forgo an inspection, as some people did.
*Fixes: With an inspector's report in hand, you can go back to the seller and tell him he needs to repair whatever defects may have been uncovered. You shouldn't use the findings as a laundry list of demands, especially when it comes to inexpensive cosmetic fixes. But sellers now are more willing to mend serious problems.
*Bargaining: Everything is up for grabs. Certainly, you can make an offer that is somewhat below the asking price. Realtors report that the list versus price ratio is around 95 percent. But other things are on the table too. Apart from repairs, you might want to ask for help with closing costs or require the seller to throw in his refrigerator or chandelier.
*Falling prices: This is far and away the key issue for most buyers. Above all else, there is an overriding concern that housing values haven't yet reached bottom, and who wants to spend $200,000 today on a house that may be worth $175,000 in six months? Even folks who plan to live in their new digs long after the nose dive ends are afraid to pull the trigger for fear that prices have further to fall. Never mind that, in some areas, prices aren't falling or are on the upswing. People read the papers and listen to the news that prices are going down, down, down -- and they freeze.
*Doubt: Uncertainty about the economy is another troubling issue, especially for people who are worried they may not have a job tomorrow. If you are concerned that your livelihood is in jeopardy, you don't want to take on a major financial obligation, especially one so large and important as a house.
*Financing: Interest rates may be great, but financing for people who have more than a few dings on their credit records has all but disappeared. If it is available, it is expensive. Lenders who made crazy loans are no longer in business, or certainly are no longer making no-doc, no-money-down, interest-only mortgages.
Even the most creditworthy borrowers are finding it more difficult to qualify. Lenders have gone back to traditional underwriting requirements and then some. They now require that you document your income and employment status, show them your tax returns and prove you have money in the bank.
Low-down-payment loans are available for those who qualify, but they come with mortgage insurance that could add $100 or more to the monthly payout. Even insurance is getting harder to come by as insurers begin scaling back their activities in states where they have incurred their highest losses.
Then there's the possibility that an appraisal will come in below the contract price.
If that's the case, lenders want their borrowers to make up the difference -- in cash.
*Sellers: Some sellers still don't get it. They have yet to grasp the fact that they have to be a little more amenable to the bargaining process. Even some builders, who should know better, are holding out. According to a recent survey by conducted by Harris Interactive for Zillow, the online real-estate community, two-thirds of all owners believe the value of their properties have remained stable in 2007 or risen.
Either people are in denial or they're just not paying attention, says Zillow's numbers cruncher, Stan Humphries.
Whatever the reason, some sellers won't budge. So you might have to move on to your second choice.
Write to Lew Sichelman c/o Chicago Tribune, Real Estate, 435 N. Michigan Ave., 4th floor, Chicago IL 60611. Or e-mail him at realestate@ tribune.com.