In neighborhoods where "For Sale" signs outnumber buyers, it's tempting to mull over a deal before you commit.
But even where buyers prevail, hesitancy could be a serious error, real estate experts caution.
"You learn quickly that if you drag your feet, you can miss out on either the right house or a tremendous buy," says Norman D. Flynn, past president of the National Association of Realtors, based in Washington.
Even in a sluggish market, experienced buyers can spot a bargain in a heartbeat. While the "I-want-to-sleep-on-it" crowd is still evaluating the situation, these shrewd individuals are signing contracts for the best homes.
"The bargains usually go to the fleet of foot," Mr. Flynn observes.
Granted, there may be dozens of homes for sale in any neighborhood. But you can be sure that there are a few exceptionally well-kept or well-priced homes that will be taken quickly.
"There are always stratas within a market where some homes will sell in 24 to 36 hours. The creampuffs and bargains go to the actual buyers and decision-makers -- not the shoppers and tire kickers," Mr. Flynn says.
Fear of making the wrong decision is one of the factors that, ironically, often stops people from making the right decision, says Sherry Gardner, a sales associate with RE/Max Realty-Columbia.
"People are afraid that a better deal is just around the corner," she says.
Greed is another factor that makes people hesitate. Particularly in a market where sellers outnumber buyers, there's a danger of becoming so confident in the bargaining process that you lose a sensational buy over a small sum of money, Mr. Flynn says.
"When the buyer is king, some start to swagger and strut. They may get so aggressive with their low-ball offers that they offend the seller and lose some very good buying opportunities," Mr. Flynn says.
In the midst of a negotiation, some buyers carry this "penny wise, pound foolish" approach to an extreme.
"I've seen it over and over again, where for $500 a person will lose a $200,000 house he really wanted to buy," he adds.
Although negotiation is perfectly appropriate in real estate, the savviest buyers know when not to deal.
Still, if you're truly uncomfortable making a quick decision about a house, remember that you need not fly into a decision blindly.
"There is a buying readiness in people just as there is a reading readiness in children. You can become knowledgeable enough in advance that you'll know when to take advantage of a bargain," Mr. Flynn says.
To those who want to be ready for opportunity when it presents itself, real estate specialists offer these pointers:
* Begin researching the market before you intend to buy.
"Don't wait until you have . . . money that's burning a hole in your pocket," says Mr. Flynn. He suggests prospective buyers begin preparing nine to 18 months before committing to a purchase.
There should be several elements to your research:
You'll want to learn about mortgage options.
And you'll probably want to obtain a statement from a mortgage lender indicating that you have been pre-qualified to borrow a certain amount.
You'll want to think through your own household needs and preferences. Ask yourself, for instance, how many bedrooms you need and whether a garage is important to you.
You'll also want to zero in on particular neighborhoods.
Start with a large concentric circle around, say, the Towson area. Then, as you gather information about that area, gradually reduce the large circle into a few smaller circles, around, say, Stoneleigh or Campus Hills.
Sources of information include neighborhood associations, school offices and local government agencies. You also can chat with real estate agents who specialize in the area of your interest. Those will be the ones whose names appear on "For Sale" signs in the community.
Probably the quickest way to learn about a neighborhood is from those who live there. Try going door-to-door in the community on a Saturday afternoon. How better to get a quick fix on the local schools, whether vandalism is an issue or how a new highway will impact the neighborhood?
* Seek advice on pricing from a qualified real estate agent if you lack time to do research independently.
Maybe you're involved in a corporate transfer and are hurried. Or maybe you intended to buy later but have encountered a buy that seems too appealing to let go. In such cases, your best approach could be to rely on a competent realty agent for a quick evaluation of price.
"He can tell you, on a scale of one to 10, whether you're looking at the absolute swipe of the century or a price that's gorged beyond belief," Mr. Flynn says.
One caveat, however. Virtually all real estate agents are legally bound to represent the seller in a transaction rather than the buyer. And it's in their interest to get the best possible price for the seller. Even so, Mr. Flynn contends a good agent will usually offer impartial advice to a buyer on price because it's in his long-term interest to do so.
* Remember that not all houses are created equal.
If you want a Honda Accord, you could find hundreds, even thousands, of those cars that could give you the same level of satisfaction.
But houses, like humans, are unique individuals. The right style of home, in the right condition, located in the right neighborhood near the right school and sold at the right price can be tough to duplicate.
That's why a decisive approach to homebuying can be so important, insists Douglas Rittenhouse, broker-owner of Century 21 C.C. Rittenhouse Inc. in Catonsville.
He says, "There is a so-called 'right home for you.' "