Buying or selling a home? Here's how to strengthen your hand in rough times. March 20, 2008 Birth, death, marriage, divorce. Throw in new careers and lost jobs, and you've got the reasons most of us fail miserably at timing the real estate market. We sell and buy because life -- not market conditions -- drives the decision.It's how you manage the deal that dictates whether you'll give up too much of your profit in a fire sale or forsake future profit by paying too much -- especially now that the housing market has taken a chilly turn. In the fourth quarter of 2007, the median home price in the U.S. fell 5.8% over the same period 12 months prior, according to the National Association of Realtors. And 13% fewer homes were sold last year than the year before. Below, we have tips for both buyers and sellers to help you strengthen your hand in these rough times, no matter what side of the transaction you're on. (Hint: It wouldn't hurt to read both sections so you know the other team's strategy, too.) Plus, you can sharpen your skills and test your knowledge with our QUIZZES: How Smart a Buyer Are You? How Smart a Seller Are You? Buyer tips Buyers definitely have the upper hand in a cool market. You can press your advantage to negotiate the best price possible. However, bear in mind that today's credit crunch has lenders tightening their belts, so you'll need to make the right moves to get a good deal on a mortgage. Also, dust off those negotiating skills that went unused during the seller's market of the past few years. Advertisement Have a down payment. A 100% financing deal is much harder to get. So be prepared to put at least 5% down. Lenders also want you to have at least two months' worth of PITI (principal, interest, taxes and insurance) in reserve. See How to Shop for a Mortgage Today for more info. Boost your credit score. Based on current interest rates, the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is about 1.3 percentage points lower for someone with a credit score of 760 to 850 than for someone with a score of 620 to 659. On a $200,000 loan, a borrower with a top-tier score would pay $173 less per month -- a saving of $2,076 per year -- than a borrower near the bottom, according to MyFICO.com. Learn what you can do to raise your score before buying. Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the local housing market and the seller's motivations. For example, find out what similar homes in the neighborhood are selling for at Zillow.com. Ask questions about the sellers, such as why they're selling, how long the home has been on the market, when they bought the home and how much they paid. Once you zero in on a property, hire a home inspector to find any defects in the home. Sharpen your negotiating skills. Just about everything is negotiable when buying a house, especially in a buyer's market. When making an offer, it can include contingencies that protect you, such as requiring that the home pass an inspection, appraises for at least as much as you're paying for it and that the seller accept your offer by a certain time. Advertisement You also can ask that the seller pay part of your closing costs, include a redecorating allowance or remove an above-ground pool you don't want. The trick, though, is to prove to the seller you're a serious buyer without looking too eager. And you've got to be willing to walk away from a home if the seller refuses to negotiate in price or make concessions to your satisfaction. TAKE THE QUIZ: How Smart a Home BUYER Are You? Seller tips A cool market means it may take you longer to sell your home, and you might not get as much money as you'd like. Those are two tough pills to swallow. But if you make the right moves, you can increase your odds of striking a good deal and getting the most from your sale. Pick the right agent. You want somebody who is going to market the place, not some slacker who talks you into setting a low-ball price and then waits for a bargain hunter to trip over the house on the MLS. Your best bet is to find someone who was in the business during the last downturn. That's a survivor who knows how to sell when others can't. Interview several agents. Advertisement Pin down marketing specifics when interviewing agents. Despite the rise of Web sites, such as Realtor.com and brokers' own sites, many sales still turn on old-fashioned techniques, such as classified ads in newspapers and local real estate magazines, open houses and yard signs (with a box full of detailed fliers for the drive-by crowd). When markets slow, these staples matter more than they do when things are sizzling. Shop the market yourself to get a feel for prices. Ask your agent to show you listings that are competing with your own. Buy down the interest rate. It's not a sales price that people are buying -- it's the mortgage payment. And buying down the buyer's interest rate is a smart way to attract buyers without giving up your profits. For example, lowering the buyer's interest rate from 6.5% to 5.5% on a $150,000 loan reduces the monthly payment by almost $100 per month. The buy-down would cost you about 4.75% of the loan amount, or $7,125 in this example. Alternatively, if you lowered your sale price by that amount, the buyer would save only $45 a month. You can also offer to buy down the interest rate for the first year or two for less money. Either way, you're allowing buyers to get more home than they would have otherwise been able to afford. Advertisement Dress up the house. Agents call it staging: Haul out the oversize furniture; get rid of clutter; break out the touch-up paint; polish the glass; buff brass fixtures; eradicate smells. "Things you were willing to live with are not necessarily something you want a buyer to see," says Kevin Cook, president of the Cottage Realty Ltd. in Berthoud, Colo. See The Benefits of Home Staging to see some before and after examples. Hire an inspector. Most buyers make their purchases contingent on a home inspection. But hiring your own inspector before placing your house on the market can help you indentify things to fix ahead of time and make your home more attractive to the buyer. For example, you'll find out if your roof needs replacement or if any electrical or plumbing work should be done. TAKE THE QUIZ: How Smart a Home SELLER Are You?