When Lisa and Doyle Girouard bought their $370,000 Fairfax County home in February 1989, houses throughout Washington's suburbs were appreciating 10 to 25 percent a year. Last week, the Girouards found out what it means when a racing real estate market stops in its tracks.

After months of trying to sell their Centreville colonial because they were being transferred to New Jersey with American Telephone & Telegraph, the Girouards sold their house Thursday for $334,000 -- a $54,000 loss considering the $18,000 they sank into sprinkler systems, sod and hardwood floors.

"It's very disheartening," Lisa Girouard said. "It's hard to walk away from that amount of money. We were lucky we had help from the company."

Homeowners like the Girouards, who bought houses a year or so ago when prices were at their peak and now must sell during the most difficult housing market the Washington area has seen in almost a decade, may be the hardest hit by the sharp market downturn.

In addition to socking some homeowners with financial losses, the soft housing market is causing some elderly people to delay selling their houses because they suddenly have less equity to finance retirement plans, and forcing sellers to sweeten deals with everything from owner financing to Rolls-Royces.

"The market has gotten to the point where it has changed people's lives," said Ron Rush, an agent for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.

When the downturn started last year, it hit expensive residential areas such as Potomac and Great Falls, causing a glut of marked-down mansions, but it since has spread to moderately priced dwellings in previously immune markets such as Prince George's and Prince William counties.

In most cases, the real problem isn't falling prices but sellers with unrealistically high expectations. Realtors say some sellers stubbornly cling to prices that aren't realistic in today's market. They have contributed to a market gridlock in which sellers won't lower their prices and buyers won't raise their offers.

In the end, sellers are left holding the bag.

Throughout the area, behind "For Sale" signs are stories of sour investments, changed plans, postponed moves, canceled contracts, slashed prices. Here are a few:

In April, a Maryland couple paid $765,000 for a house in Chevy Chase, but never moved in. Unable to sell their old house, they had to put the new one back on the market where it sits, unsold, at $700,000. Already a loss of $65,000, it could get worse. "I hate even to talk about it," said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

A Great Falls couple separated a year after they bought their house. It's back on the market for $1.6 million. They received one offer that would have meant swallowing a loss of almost $300,000. "We may end up pulling the house off the market for a year or so," said the man, who asked not to be identified.

In the past six months, Patricia Forlines has had only one offer on her town house near Montgomery Village -- and it was for less than the $120,000 she paid in 1987. "I painted it inside and out, put {in} a new kitchen floor, new carpeting, offered a second trust. It's in a great location. I'm dumbfounded. When I bought it, there were three contracts on the house the day it went up for sale, and I had to bid over the asking price."

A condominium in the District at 14th and R streets NW that last year sold for $232,000 is on the market for $199,000 and still has no buyers.

A Silver Spring couple is waiting to sell their house, which they have owned for 27 years, before retiring and moving out of the area. If they get their asking price, they stand to make a profit of more than $100,000, but say they need every penny of it for their retirement. "We're at the mercy of the market," said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

Dean and Patricia Crawford, who have had no offers on their six-bedroom Oakton house since putting it up for sale in July, recently decided to sweeten the deal by throwing in the 1988 Rolls-Royce that Dean gave Patricia for her birthday two years ago. The car is worth about $220,000. The Crawfords want $1.5 million for the house, which has an indoor pool. "We knew the real estate market was a little bit soft and knew it would take a while, but it seems to be getting softer by the day," Dean Crawford said.

Despite the horror stories, some say it's not all that bad. Belinda and Tom Corken sold their Clinton house for $123,500 in August. They owned the house for six years and made a $49,000 profit, before Realtors' commissions. "Under the circumstances, we're happy," Belinda Corken said.

"We're not advising people to strap explosives to their house and threaten to blow it up. It's not that bad," said Timothy Healy, a Long & Foster agent.

Healy said people who bought years ago will reap sizable profits on their houses. "They are still making money, but when they realize that their house isn't worth what they thought, they get upset," Healy said. "Some had almost spent the money in their minds."

Real estate experts say a major reason why so many houses are on the market, causing the huge inventory and soft prices, is sellers' refusal to admit the glory days of soaring home values are past, at least for a while.

Realty firms have started to get tough: They're turning down listings and dropping listings if sellers insist on sticking to fantasy-high prices. "If things are priced well, they'll sell," said Shannon & Luchs agent Harriet Rosenfeld. "Some had a gluttonous price on them. Now prices are returning to reality."

But reality can be hard to stomach.

Stephanie and Charles Bianchi moved to Albany, Ore., in June, leaving unsold the Arlington house they had owned for six years.

They were asking $357,000 for the house, but their agent told them they could sell the house easily if they dropped the price to $325,000.

The Bianchis decided to rent the house out.

The couple said they will wait up to five years for the market to turn around, she said, even though their rent doesn't quite cover their mortgage payments.

The Bianchis bought the house for $155,000.

Even those who cut the price find it sometimes doesn't help. Douglas Denault, of Chevy Chase, has dropped the price on his architecturally acclaimed house with vaulted ceilings, artist's studio and fireplace by $135,000, to $439,000.

Still, he said, he hasn't gotten "a single offer, not even a ridiculous offer."

Experts disagree on when and how far the market will rebound. Texas, New Jersey and much of the Northeast have suffered larger slumps in sales than the Washington area because bank failures, bankrupt developers, oil prices, federal spending cuts and job layoffs have had an even larger impact there.

"We probably are about halfway through the downturn," housing economist Michael Sumichrast said. "I don't think you're going to see an improvement {nationally} until 1992."

In the Washington area, Sumichrast said he expects home prices to fall at least another 10 percent before they hit bottom. Other industry officials, including Howard Rooks, chairman of Mount Vernon Realty, disagree and say the worst is already here. Rooks is predicting a "much improved" market by spring.

The median price of a single-family house in this area rose 3 percent, to $197,000, in the first six months of 1990, compared with the first six months of last year.

But those numbers lag behind the reality, say dozens of real estate agents, industry experts and house buyers and sellers who say house values in many areas are at a standstill or have fallen.

Also, many builders and sellers are offering incentives to buyers -- extras such as finished basements or a car, owner financing or payment of closing costs -- that effectively lower the price of houses but do not show up in the statistics.

The number of house sales plunged 21 percent this year compared with the first six months of 1988, according to Rufus S. Lusk & Son Inc., a real estate information company. In some areas, particularly high-priced ones, sales are off as much as 50 percent, according to real estate agents.

With existing houses not selling, construction throughout the area has stalled. Building permits are down 40 percent for the first seven months of 1990, compared with last year, according to Sheehan & Associates in McLean.

But Long & Foster Realtor Healy, echoing the thoughts of many national and local real estate experts, said Washington area homeowners are still among the wealthiest in the country.

"Money is so deep here that a lot of homeowners are able to sustain damages that prizefighters would have been punched out by," Healy said. "Dropping the price of homes $25,000 every three weeks doesn't mean the end of the world to a lot of people here."