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THESE MAY BE THE BEST DEALS YOU'LL NEVER GET

What if your rich uncle laid out a banquet but you lacked the teeth to munch down on the prime rib and the triple-chocolate torte?

Something like that is happening with home loans. Our rich uncle - the U.S. Federal Reserve - is dispensing cheap credit. But we don't have the financial choppers to qualify for the mortgages.

That thought popped into my head during a speech this week by Florida economist Hank Fishkind. The government's loose money policy should drive mortgage rates below 5 percent this year, Fishkind said.

That means we're back to post-9/11, when friends and family members nabbed 4.8 percent loans. And these loans were fixed for 30 years. These weren't bait-and-switch teaser rates ready to booby trap the gullible.

But times have changed. Burned by homeowners waltzing away from their debts, banks won't be taken for fools anymore. The Feds may be tossing money around, but sober heads in the banking business aren't eager to play Let's Make a Deal with the borrower in the clown suit.

Want to buy a house? Show you're truly creditworthy. The lending industry has red-lined our region as a "depreciating market," so don't bother asking for 100 percent financing.

No-money-down loans were a luxury for when homes were ballooning in value. But as home prices fall, they're sucker bets for banks. They can seize your house if you don't pay, but so what? The home's probably worth $25,000 less than you paid for it.

The tragedy of it all is that it's a tantalizingly good time to shop around for a house. Last week's property tax referendum will make owning a Florida home cheaper. Insurance is more plentiful, though rates remain a rip-off. Now interest rates are kissing the floor.

According to Fishkind, home sales have bottomed out in Pasco, Hernando and Hillsborough counties. He flashed a bunch of line graphs on the wall to make his case. Pinellas will take its lumps a few more months before its sales, too, begin to stabilize.

Stability, particularly at such a low level of sales, does not prosperity make. But it's too bad we overindulged so much at the last feast that we have little stomach for the goodies laid out on the table this time.

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