Time is running out for people who want to take advantage of the federal government's tax credit for first-time homebuyers (up to $8,000) and move-up buyers (up to $6,500).
"It's time to get moving," said Realtor Trudy Severa of Long & Foster in Reston. "On average, a motivated buyer actively searches for their home of choice for three to six weeks. With limited inventory, as we have now, it can take much longer. Since the deadline for having a property under contract is April 30, there's no time to lose."
To speed up the process, experts have a number of tips -- starting with getting an estimate from your lender on what size mortgage you can get.
"It's a mistake to begin searching without knowing what a buyer qualifies for in terms of financing because it wastes time and often sets unrealistic expectations," Severa said.
Finding the right financing company -- a task your real estate agent can help you with -- is particularly important when time is short, said Don Denton, a Realtor who has managed the Coldwell Banker office on Capitol Hill for 30 years.
You need a lender familiar with the neighborhood you want to live in, he said, one that works with appraisers who are equally well-informed. "The process can be expedited by weeks if you use the right lender," he said.
That makes knowing where you want to live especially important. Being clear on what kind of house you want and the relative home values in the neighborhood you are targeting gives you the confidence to make quick decisions. That clarity is essential in a fast-moving market in which multiple offers have again become common and homes can sell in hours.
The Internet is a great place to start. Most Web sites will have photos or virtual tours of properties so you can get a pretty good idea if the layout and amenities are what you want and need. Use online services such as Zillow.com to compare prices and get more information about sales in the neighborhood. The more homework you do online, the better you can narrow the list of houses you need to go see with your agent and the sooner you will make a contract offer.
Grab a handful of your agent's business cards and head out to open houses on the weekend. The unwritten rule is to never buy a house you've only seen once, so if you find one you like, have your agent set up a second showing during which you can spend a longer time in the house.
Even if there isn't a house on the market right now that interests you, tell your agent what you're looking for so he or she can watch for properties as they are listed.
"I always ask, 'Where do you work? Do you use public transportation? What areas do you like or are familiar with that you would like to live in? What are your absolute needs and what would you like to have but can live without?' " said Pat Kline, the secretary/treasurer of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors and an associate broker with Avery Hess Realtors in Springfield, Va.
"We get new inventory every day, and I never know when I might run across the perfect place for a buyer."
Be ready to make an offer
"Make sure you have some money set aside for your earnest money deposit," said Karla Pinato, a Realtor and executive director of the Creig Northrop Team within Long & Foster. Earnest money, which is put down when the offer is made, is typically 1 percent to 2 percent of the offer price, she said.
Avoid short sales and foreclosures
Real estate experts are strongly warning buyers against purchasing a foreclosure or short sale if the tax credit is crucial to their home purchase. In a short sale, there are two lenders to deal with and a lot of signatures needed on the seller's end to release a mortgage that will not be paid in full. Foreclosures have their own time-consuming problems, including issues with the title.