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TIME FOR BUYING A HOUSE IS NOW, ECONOMIST SAYS

SHARE TIME FOR BUYING A HOUSE IS NOW, ECONOMIST SAYS

Falling interest rates, depressed regional housing prices and readily available mortgage money are making it easier for Americans to afford a house today than at any time in recent memory.

"If you can't afford to buy now, you're in trouble," said David Wyss, chief economist at DRI-McGraw Hill, a consulting firm in Lexington, Mass. "Now may be your best chance."Average interest rates for a 30-year fixed mortgage have dropped to 9.82 percent from a high of 11.2 percent last spring. Rates are dropping in response to a slowing economy and expectations that the Federal Reserve Board will ease its tight hold on the money supply to keep the economy from plunging into recession. A slowing economy also softens the demand for credit, adding further downward pressure on interest rates.

Homebuyers are also finding that prices have fallen as much as 10 percent to 20 percent over last year in several regions - most notably the Northeast, Midwest and South. Nationally, the median price of a home rose only slightly from August to September - from $122,200 to $122,500. The median price means half the homes for sale are above that price and half are below.

Overbuilding is the chief reason for the price decreases, said Wyss. "We had a lot of building this year and last and a lot of those houses are still on the market." Indeed, the inventory of unsold new houses has swelled to a seven-month supply from its norm of about six months.

The buyer's market also is helped by the ready availability of mortgage money. Lenders are eager to make mortgages these days and have lots of money to do so but are finding few takers. "With the economy starting to soften, people are afraid to make long-term commitments like buying a house," said Wyss.

Prices aren't expected to rise as quickly in the next 10 years as they did in the last three decades. Dampening factors include inflation, which is slowing, and the declining number of new households, which supply the lion's share of the demand for housing. The next segment of home-buyers - those born in the 1960s and 1970s - will be smaller than in years past.

Slower appreciation notwithstanding, real estate is still a good investment, Wyss said.