Over the next year, experts say the trajectory of home prices will vary widely from region to region, state to state, and even city to city. For example, home values in Minneapolis are expected to increase 21 percent by 2018, while prices in Austin, Texas, are projected to rise only 8 percent, according to Moody's Economy.com.
Prospective home buyers should pay extra attention to the local economy and job market when thinking about purchasing a home. "You need to look at the long-term economic prospects for your area. Not even just the housing market—what does job growth look like projected out? What does the population growth look like?" says Tara-Nicholle Nelson, a consumer educator for Trulia.com.
In general, markets with a diverse and varied economy are more likely to see the job and population growth that fuels home-value appreciation over the long term. "Places where you see big companies moving and creating a lot of jobs, that's where you want to be. It maximizes the resale prospects for your home," she adds.
Do your homework. With so many resources available for house hunters, it's easy to get overwhelmed by an avalanche of information. Start by using online research tools such as Zillow, Realtor.com, and Trulia to get a broad sense of your market. Consider hiring a real estate agent with expert knowledge of the local community, but don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.
"People should get more assertive about the DIY research and preparation they want to do," Nelson says. "We're seeing regular home buyers with spreadsheets. It's not that they're not looking to their professionals for advice, they just want to make sure they feel comfortable with it on their own."
After looking at the big picture, drill down to more specific metrics by neighborhood, such as how long a home has been on the market, list-price to sell-price ratios of comparable properties, and the percentage of listings in a given market with price reductions.
Although it's advantageous to have a good feel for your housing market, the decision should correlate more with your personal goals than any national trends or local statistics. "You have to make your real estate decisions and decide on your strategy based on your personal life and family vision more than anything that's going on in the market," Nelson says.
Plan to stay put. During the housing boom, homeowners were virtually guaranteed to make money or at least break even on their homes, regardless of how long they owned the property. But the luxury of rapid price appreciation is another casualty of the financial crisis and housing market collapse. These days, would-be home buyers should avoid purchasing a home unless they plan to stick around for at least five years.
"People need to buy today because they're buying the family home," says Helfant-Browning. "This is not buying an investment you're going to live in for a year and flip. People need to be in five, seven, or eight years to break even."
That length of time could be even longer in particularly hard-hit markets, Nelson says. "It used to be you could count on whenever you bought [a home], you'd be able to turn it around at, or more than, what you paid for it," she says. "Now, the more hard-hit your market has been by the real estate recession, the longer you should be comfortable staying put. The most powerful thing you can do to avoid locking in losses on your home is to plan to stay in it a long time."