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THE DEATH OF THE AMERICAN DREAM OF HOMEOWNERSHIP IS EXAGGERATED

Newspapers, radio and TV reporters are constantly telling us that home-ownership for first time buyers is out of reach. Like Mark Twain's comments about reports of his demise, the death of the American dream is much exaggerated.

If you are able to pay $650 a month in rent, and most Americans pay more, you can handle a $95,000 mortgage.Using an adjustable rate loan at today's 7.5 percent average initial interest rate, $650 will cover the principal and interest on a $93,000 loan. Some lenders can get you in for significantly less, say at 7 percent, where the loan amount jumps to $98,000.

Considering that the average starter home costs only $81,100 this year, according to the National Association of Realtors, most people should be able to put it together.

"Generally the people who say they cannot buy a home are those who lack the discipline to save," said John Obereiner, chairman of First Chicago-Bank of Ravenswood. "The sacrifices people make need not be large. We are talking about the nickels and dimes that are thrown away regularly. They do add up into dollars and down payments."

Here's how to get your piece of that American dream.

- Start a savings plan for that down payment. It doesn't take much to get started. Five or 10 thousand dollars saved over two or three years can get the door open to building home equity and getting tax advantages that renters never see.

"Before we got into our first home, my husband and I set up a bank account in Milwaukee to save the down payment," said a Brookfield, Ill., homeowner. "We paid into it faithfully, and because the account was in another state we had little temptation to take from it until we had our down payment. We also bought U.S. Savings bonds regularly."

It's not impossible, if a family pulls together. After all, even part-time waiting tables or an early morning newspaper route can yield $5,000 to $10,000 extra a year - a sizable down payment in only two years.

- Look for lenders who will accept lower income qualifications for borrowers. Typically these will be large financial institutions with their own cash to loan out.

"The standard ratios require housing payments to be no more than 28 percent of total monthly income. However, because we invest our own cash in the loans we make, we have the flexibility of accepting income ratios as high as 33 percent for qualified borrowers," said Tom Goyda, spokesman for St. Louis-based Citi-corp Mortgage.

- Flexible down payments. Though lenders usually require a minimum of 10 percent down, there are ways to come up with less.

"Even if the lender doesn't offer a 5 percent down payment program, he probably knows of someone who does," said Elizabeth Pearson, vice president, marketing with Shearson Lehman Mortgage in Newport Beach, Calif. "Most all lenders have a little flexibility on foreclosed property or know who does. There's always room for negotiation, but would-be homebuyers must first ask."

- Some lenders either have taken properties back in foreclosure or are committed to rehabilitating selected areas of their community. In either case, they may be more than willing to find a responsible borrower. In cases like these, lenders may allow buyers to get in with little or no down payments.

"Especially in the redeveloping areas to which we are committed, we evaluate an individual's attitude; and that may allow for adjustments in standard lending guidelines. However, we do everything possible to satisfy ourselves that our borrowers will not overreach with the payments," said Obereiner.

- Having clean credit is a must. "Clean up your credit report before you apply with a lender," said Pearson. "Pay off your credit cards. Lenders look at your debt to income ratios to qualify you."

- Look for adjustable rate mortgages. "ARMs typically have starting interest rates that are two percentage points or more below a fixed rate loan," said Pearson. "This can lower the income necessary to qualify by 18 percent or more."

- Fixer-uppers. First-timers can often get inexpensive homes that require repairs. Sweat equity can equate to good solid appreciation at resale time. The deals can really be great if the fixer upper happens to be a foreclosed property.

- Don't be afraid of condos. First-time buyers should not be picky. Buy that inexpensive condo; when the market is glutted you should be able to get a low price. Even if there is very little profit when you sell, at least you will be building a credit history, equity, great tax deductions and the homeownership habit. The key is to get into homeownership as soon as possible.

"In a way, we have lost the style that our immigrant fathers and mothers had with regard to savings and planning for the future," said Obereiner. "Homeownership is very possible for those who really want it."