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HOUSING MARKET IS STILL ON SOLID FOUNDATION

Despite years of dire warnings from some economists that the housing boom is about to end, it hasn't. Indeed, last year prices rose even higher - about 11 percent nationally, according to government figures.

That may prove a burden for buyers, but for sellers, it can mean a bonanza.

Yet there are signs, at least in some communities, that housing already is overpriced, raising doubts about how much longer big gains can continue.

In some parts of the country, job losses and local economic downturns have slowed appreciation. At the same time, property taxes are rising across the nation, squeezing many homeowners on fixed or limited incomes.

Other signs that bear watching are the portion of home buyers who are purchasing for investment or vacation use - it's up to 36 percent, higher than previous estimates - and how rents track with house prices.

If investors are commonplace and rents are declining in relation to prices, the area may be on the brink of a drop in values.

If you are thinking of downsizing to a smaller house or less-expensive area, there's incentive to do so now, while prices are high and demand is still strong. (Check the current state of your local market by talking to real estate agents or a reputable local appraiser.)

Long-time homeowners stand to gain the most: People who have been living in their homes for as little as five years should realize profits in most markets; homeowners who bought 20 or more years ago have seen their homes triple in value.

The real estate industry has seen changes, as well. Time was, selling a house followed a fairly simple scenario: You hired an agent, paid a 5 percent to 7 percent commission, and moved on.

No longer.

A batch of real estate services have emerged, many of which were barely noticeable a few years ago. In return for a lot of extra effort, you can save thousands of dollars selling your home on your own through Internet do-it-yourself real estate agencies such as ForSaleByOwners.com and Owners.com.

Most of these national Web sites charge less than $200 for their basic services, or a few hundred more if you add access to the Multiple Listing Service agents.

Then there are the regional and local sites. Discount brokers, such as Foxtons in the Northeast and Ziprealty in 10 states and Washington, D.C., offer some of the services of real estate Web sites, along with broker assistance, for commissions that may be as little as half the going rate.

Not all is simplicity, however.

Real estate agents point out that there's more to consider than cost. Some agents won't show do-it-yourself listings because they don't want to deal with uninformed or inexperienced sellers and lower compensation.

"They know they are going to have be doing a lot more work," says Anthony Marguleas, a real estate agent in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Sellers have to make time to show the home to buyers and negotiate the terms of sale.

If you decide to use a Web site or discount broker, hire a qualified real estate attorney to handle contract, title issues, and necessary disclosure statements. (One couple we spoke with who did it themselves saved about $27,000 on the sale of their $475,000 house by using a Web site and paying an attorney $900.)

If you go the traditional route and engage an agent, try to negotiate a lower commission. Your leverage is greatest if discount brokers are active in your area.

Either way, have your home inspected by a professional inspector. That way, you can make any necessary repairs before selling to minimize last-minute surprises and concessions.

By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.