It's probably the biggest purchase you'll ever make and the most confusing. But with our straightforward guide, buying a house doesn't have to be difficult. April 13, 2006 It's that time of year again. No, we're not talking about the tax deadline. It's high season for the residential real estate market. Perhaps you're graduating from college or getting married this spring and thinking about buying your first home. Or you're single and want to stop throwing away your money on rent (or want to move out of your parents' home). Maybe the children are growing up, and you need a bigger place with a yard. Or it's time to leave the empty nest and downscale. Now might be the perfect time to go for it. Even though mortgage rates are near a four-year high, they are still below the average of the last 20 years of 8%. Plus the hot real estate market is cooling off -- and that's good news for buyers. Because houses are sitting on the market longer, some sellers are lowering their prices and homebuilders are offering incentives, such as paying closing costs or upgrading countertops, cabinets, floors and more at no cost. But that doesn't mean it is a buyer's market everywhere. Buyers still find a lot of competition in larger cities and metropolitan areas. This means you have to do your homework -- especially if you're buying your first house. Our stories and tools will help you decide whether to make the leap to home ownership, familiarize yourself with the housing market in your area, figure out how much house you can afford, understand the mortgage process and get the best rates, make an offer and close the deal. Advertisement First things first Should You Buy or Rent? Don't beat yourself up if you can't afford to jump into the sizzling real estate market -- you might be surprised what a bargain tenancy has become. Plus: Four places to house your cash while you wait for the right opportunity. Research the market Home and Condo Prices Where You Live See how average existing-home and condo prices have increased where you live, and compare one-, three- and five-year appreciation rates with 100 metropolitan areas across the U.S. How Much House? See how the rest of the country lives. We went house shopping in 14 metro areas to see how far $300,000, $650,000 and $1 million would go. Properties ranged from cozy one-bedroom condos to massive mansions. Plus, appreciation rates, and key stats on each city. Make the leap Advice for First-Time Buyers The first step to getting your foot in the door is figuring out how much you can afford and from where the up-front cash will come. Advertisement A Home for One You don't have to wait for Mr. or Ms. Right to come along before making this commitment. Learn how to know if you're ready to join the growing number of singles in homeownership. Home Buyer's Survival Kit Whether you're a first-time buyer, moving up or downsizing, we'll unlock the strategies you'll need to get the best house at the best price. Back in Balance How to get the best deal when you buy (and the best price when you sell). Figure out financing The Mortgage Squeeze Rates on ARMs become less attractive, and "exotic" mortgages lose their luster. For many buyers and refinancers, a 30-year, fixed-rate loan is a better, safer bet. Advertisement Glossary of Mortgage Choices A variety of nontraditional mortgage loans are available. Be aware of the risks, however. Tools Search for the best mortgage rates in your area How much will my home payments be? Which mortgage is better: fixed or adjustable? Which loan is better?