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Finding the Right Home

Owning a home is part of the American dream. From carrying the wife (or, if you're suitably muscled, your husband) over the threshold, to notches on the door jamb marking the children's growth spurts, to the kids frolicking in dreamy red-and-amber leaf piles in the autumn, to car washes in the driveway and shoveling snow in the winter, owning a home is part of the iconography of America. From Leave it to Beaver through Archie Bunker and The Cosby Show, we are treated to scenes from family life in the American home.

Here we present everything you need to know to keep the experience of buying a home as pleasurable and informed as possible.

We've divided the information into a few main areas. First, we delve into the money. How much do you need to buy a house? How much can you afford? How do you get your hands on the money? What do you need to qualify? How can you save money and buy smart?

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Then, we illuminate facets of actually shopping for your house. Should you use an agent, or do it yourself? If you do choose an agent, are your interests being well represented? What should you look for in a home -- or a neighborhood? What about condos and co-ops?

Then, once you've gotten the money together and have found the house you want, we offer up the art of the deal. It's at this stage that time seems to speed up, and the better prepared you are for it, the better off you will be. How do you make an offer? Should you give the seller a time limit to respond? How much leeway is there in an asking price? How might the counter-offer come back? What happens once the offer is accepted? What can go wrong? How much money are you risking if you pull out? What should you look for in a home inspection? Can you, indeed, pull out at all? Should you?

Once you've actually bought the house, new questions will arise. Should you refinance, and when? Should you get a home equity loan? When could you, if you wanted to? What about actually moving in -- is there anything you should know? How about home additions and improvements? And home insurance?

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