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With interest rates for 30-year fixed rate mortgages still hovering around 6 percent, the end of the year is a great time for renters to become homeowners, growing families to move to more accommodating homes, and Baby Boomers to find houses that fit their evolving lifestyles.

National Association of Realtors President Cathy Whatley, owner of Buck & Buck Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., said the swing in mortgage interest rates has been somewhat of a surprise this year.

"Mortgage interest rates have been lower than projected for most of 2003, but the 30-year fixed rate should hover between 6.0 and 6.5 percent for the rest of the year," she said. "We expect home sales to moderate but remain historically strong in the coming months."

The national median existing-home price was $177,500 in August, up 9.8 percent from August 2002 when the median price was $161,700. The median is a typical market price where half of the homes sold for more and half sold for less.

While many markets around the country are experiencing strong sellers' markets, there are regions that are favoring buyers -- or are at least softening for sellers. If you're aiming to buy in such an area, the end of the year is a great time to make the leap.

In addition to low interest rates, there are other benefits to buying at the end of the year, including:

Tax savings. Closing on your new home by Dec. 31, 2003, means you can deduct mortgage interest, property taxes and points on your loan on your 2003 income tax return. You can also deduct the interest costs associated with a home equity loan. These deductions are significant, especially in the early years of your loan when you are paying off so much interest.

Sellers might be more motivated. Many sellers will also be anxious to sell by the end of the year so that they, too, can enjoy tax savings on the next home they purchase. That means you may have more leverage during negotiations and they may be willing to accept lower than their listing price. However, if you're in a strong seller's market, you'll want to be conservative -- and always heed the advice of your real estate professional.

If you're buying a new house, there's a good chance builders will be offering incentives. Many builders will throw in nice little extras to sell as many houses as they can by the end of the year.

Generally speaking, your housing choices during the fall are still healthy. By December there are traditionally fewer houses on the market. October and November are great months to go house hunting.

It's easier to move. Many moving companies are booked six or so weeks in advance during the busy summer months. In the fall and winter it's normally easier to secure the services of a moving company or rental equipment on shorter notice.

A new home for the holidays. The holiday season is a great time to celebrate your new home with family and friends. In addition, you'll enjoy the many benefits that come with homeownership, regardless of what time of year you buy, including:

Paying toward something you own. If you're renting, your rent payment goes toward something that will last you a month -- a place to live for 30 or so days. When you buy a house, your monthly mortgage payment goes toward something you own.

Consistent payments. Landlords have the discretion to increase your rent, plus it's exposed to inflation. Once you secure a mortgage, you can rely on consistent payments (if you have a fixed-rate mortgage).

A place to make your own. When you own your house, you can update your kitchen, paint your home's exterior in any color you choose, change your fixtures, and replace your carpeting -- all with the knowledge that the changes you make are your own.

Gaining equity. In the beginning, most of your payment goes toward interest. But gradually more will go toward paying off your principal, meaning you build up equity -- or savings -- in your home. Another factor in equity is appreciation. As home values go up in your area, so too does your rate of equity.

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