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In the fall of 1982, mortgage interest rates were between 15 percent and 16 percent, effectively pricing most people out of the housing market unless they could make a contract deal with a desperate seller.

In the fall of 1992, mortgage interest rates are half as high as a decade ago, but that's still not enough incentive to buy a house in some areas of the country."The farther south you go on the West Coast and the farther north you go on the East Coast the worse it gets," says real estate expert Allen A. Sabbag. "Even if (mortgage interest) rates were lower it wouldn't change the market at all."

That's the bad news Sabbag has

uncovered during a tour of U.S. housing markets this month. The good news is that Utah is not one of those depressed areas.

Sabbag is president of Meredith Corp.'s Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Service based in Des Moines, Iowa. He discussed the residential real estate market in a recent interview that included Lynn Wardley, broker for Wardley BH&G real estate with 14 offices and 650 sales agents in Utah.

Wardley said the market in Utah is the best he has seen since becoming a Better Homes & Gardens franchisee in 1983.

"Our sales this year are up about 80 percent," said Wardley. "The (local) market is extremely strong. Listings are becoming harder to get, and homes are now on the market for fewer days and we are seeing good listings, correctly priced and in a decent area, getting multiple offers. It's turning into a seller's market."

But that's not necessarily healthy for the market, believes Sabbag. "When prices accelerate, people start thinking of houses as investments instead of homes and that creates a mindset that is not good for housing."

It also means that buyers will be buying "on the high side," he noted, something people living in the Northeast who bought their homes in the 1980s now must face.

There was a big surge in demand for housing in that area that drove prices up, said Sabbag. But when the Northeast economy flattened and then went into recession, many people found themselves "upside down" on their mortgages - owing more on their loans than their homes were worth.

Nationally, said Sabbag, the housing markets are anything but uniform.

"It's real good in some, marginal in some and poor in some. But, excluding the Pacific Coast and the Atlantic states north of Washington, D.C., we basically have a fairly healthy marketplace."

But not a robust one. The 560,000 new homes projected for construction nationwide this year is "not a terribly strong picture." Even in the early 1980s, in the midst of a recession, more homes than that were built, he pointed out, and today there are some 13 million additional households.

Asked to predict where he thinks the real estate market will be a year from now, Sabbag is optimistic. "I think the 1990s will mirror the decade of the '80s: a very slow beginning, steady growth through the mid-term, and a flattening out toward the end. Corporate America has done the tough work to make their businesses competitive and in September, 1993, we will be better off."

Wardley agrees, saying Utah's market will get stronger because of the relatively vibrant local economy and good buyer confidence.

Is the American dream of home ownership in trouble? No way, said Sabbag.

"Home ownership is the most socially stable and economically positive event in our society. If you want to stabilize our society, the inner cities, then find more ways for people to own their own homes. It's the most universal desire in our society."