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MAKE ALL THE PIECES FIT

You need more space. You're tired of living in an apartment too close to your neighbors, with avocado appliances and a wheezy air-conditioner. You need the tax break. You want the security of a place that's all yours.

Whatever the reasons, you're ready to buy a house.

And, sooner or later, you, the potential buyer, are likely to be dealing with a real estate agent.

There are two kinds of agents _ those who represent sellers and those who represent buyers, called buyer's agents or buyer's brokers. You may meet an agent at an open house. Or you may see the agent's name on the "For Sale" sign at a house you're interested in. Or you may stop by an agency that you know sells a lot of houses in a neighborhood you like. Or you may seek recommendations from friends.

One of the first things an agent will do is get an idea of your financial situation. How much money do you have to put down? (Somewhere around 10 percent is typical these days.) How large of a mortgage can you qualify for? Figuring out what you can afford: Page 1H.

"The first thing I'll do when they walk in the door and I know nothing about them, I just ask briefly a couple of questions to see if they're even capable of buying," said Debbie McCall, an agent with ERA Camelot Realty in Countryside.

Some buyers visit a lender first to get themselves pre-qualified for a mortgage. Some real-estate offices can direct you to a lender or may have loan officers right there to talk with you. Agents can take down some preliminary information from you and get a feeling for the price range you should be considering. Applying for a mortgage: Page 4H.

McCall said she will ask prospects how long they have been in this area and whether they're employed.

"I like them to be employed two years," she said. "If someone has just arrived in the area because of a job transfer, that's not a problem, but if they say, "I quit my job' or "I got laid off and moved down here to enjoy the sunshine while I look,' that's a problem. . . . Lenders in conventional loans don't want to lend to someone who's had a major career change without demonstrating that they're here and here to stay."

Buyers often aren't aware of the up-front cost of home buying beyond a down payment, said Realtor Darlene Paneson, owner of Century 21 Beach Real Estate Inc. in Hudson. "They don't know about the additional costs they would incur, such as the intangibles tax, doc stamps, appraisal fees, surveys, termite inspection . . . they're not aware these are all costs they're going to incur." On a $55,000 mortgage, those costs would total between $1,400 and $1,600, she said. What will your costs be? Page 3H; the closing: Page 5H.

Real-estate agents will want to get an idea of what you are looking for in size and price. People coming from the North "have this idea you can buy anything for real cheap in Florida," Paneson said. "They expect to buy a very big house with all this land for $30,000." She said she often has to help buyers understand how much house they can afford.

Pat Fitzpatrick, broker-owner at Century 21 Ed Tolle Realty in Citrus County, agreed that sticker shock can be a problem.

"They want five acres on the water for $50,000," he said. People "were here 10 or 15 years ago and looked at houses on the water that they could have bought for $35,000, those are now $90,000 or $100,000. Lots that went for $30,000 are now $100,000."

Willie Ray Mason, a sales associate with Herbert R. Fisher Realty in Tampa, said, "There's no use showing someone a $100,000 home when they can only afford a $60,000 home. You show them all that beautiful stuff first, it's tough to sell them later on something that's not as capturing."

Sometimes the best thing a real-estate agent can suggest a buyer do is wait to buy, Mason said. Their income may not permit the type of home they really need. As little as a year may be all they really need to get some pay raises and enough money in the bank to afford the right home.

"You put a large family in a Crackerjack box, it doesn't really serve them," he said. "If you'll be honest with people at the beginning, they'll be more willing to work with you and wait if necessary."

Once you have established a price range, the agent needs to determine what features you want in a house _ new home or resale, square footage, number of bedrooms, fireplace, pool, location (close to schools, shopping, etc.).

McCall said she will pull up five listings from her Multiple Listing Service (MLS) database and take the buyers out looking. Her goal in that first round "is not to sell them a house but to get them to talk to me," she said. "I want to hear the way this house talks to them."

McCall said she tells buyers, "This isn't my house; you will never offend me. Tell me everything you like or don't like. It's the only way I'll narrow down" the search.

Based on the buyers' reactions, McCall said, she can come up with a second list of houses that she thinks will meet their needs. "Usually we find something they like the second day," she said.

Sales agents offer these tips for prospective buyers:

The old line about "location, location, location" is true. "You can take a house, renovate it, make it exactly what you want, but you can't take it out of that neighborhood into a better area," Paneson said. "When it's time to resell, they could have the most beautiful, most expensive house on the street, but they won't get their money out of it."

"Many folks are so excited by the mere fact that they are able to purchase a home that they want to buy the first thing they see," Mason said. Husbands and wives sometimes have different _ and conflicting _ wish lists. Buyers need to sit down and sort out their "needs" from their "wants" and figure out what's really important.

Considering linking up earlier rather than later in your search with a real-estate agent. You can waste a lot of time driving around looking at for-sale signs without knowing whether those houses meet your requirements or your financial capabilities.

Agents see daily updates on the MLS and know which houses have gone to contract (even though the for-sale sign is still hanging outside) and which have just come on the market.

Don't play one sales agent against another. Any agent can show you any house; you don't have to call the one whose sign is hanging outside the house.

Agents who represent sellers hope you'll feel some loyalty to them if they set up a lot of appointments to see houses, find a lender to prequalify you and otherwise spend a lot of time with you. If you turn around and buy a house through another agent, they get nothing for their time.

"If agents hear you're working with more than one, they won't give you 100 percent," said Fitzpatrick. The word, he said, "travels faster than bad news."

On the other hand, you don't need to stick with the first agent you talk to if the relationship is incompatible or if the agent is unprofessional, doesn't know how to answer your questions or isn't showing you the kinds of properties you want.

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