Home buyers are expected to return to the market in considerable numbers when mortgage rates are readily available at under 13 percent, and rates are nearly at that level now.

Last year buyers readily accepted 12 percent mortgages, but the current lack of economic confidence -- coupled with joblessness or the fear of it -- may mean that buyers prove reluctant to take on mortgages at 13 percent. Until the return of confidence in the economy -- and to some degree that means expectation of inflation in future housing prices -- sales of new homes will be relatively soft.

Whenever buyers do return to the market in considerable numbers, however, mortgage rates and house prices are likely to rise again. Stability in today's housing market is nonexistent and scant prospects for it exist.

Buyers must make highly individual decisions: to take their lumps if rates and prices fall, or to congratulate themselves if rates and prices rise above what was paid yesterday, today or tomorrow.

Mortgage rates are down sharply this month. The FHA-VA ceiling was dropped last week to 11 1/2 percent after loans had been made below the previous ceiling of 13 percent -- cut quickly from the peak of 14 percent in April.

Now conventional rates are also decliing, due to lack of consumer demand. If the lender has funds, a home buyer in this area now can or soon will be able to get a mortgage in the 11 1/2 to 12 1/2 percent range.

Meanwhile organized homebuilders -- already reeling from the severely depressed housing market and mortgage interest rates that exceeded 16 percent earlier this spring -- are catching their breath after a recent confrontation with a member of the Federal Reserve System.

Most of the dust has settled on a controvesy involving statements made -- and quoted later in some newspapers -- by Fed Governor Charles Partee.

Partee was quoted as telling a meeting sponsored by the Washington Journalism Center that young couples should refrain from buying houses until prices and interest rates begin to come down. He also said he strongly disagreed with the theory that now -- it was then early April -- is a good time to buy a house because the mortgage interest is deductible from income taxes and the value of the house is bound to rise. Partee said that interest rates will fall as the demand for housing tapers off.

After a Scripps-Howard story on Partee's statements appeared, several homebuilders reacted angrily. Merrill Butler, president of the National Association of Home Builders, called the remarks "inappropriate, inaccurate and extremely misleading" in a 12-paragraph letter to Partee.

"I am very sorry for any trouble that this news story may have caused your hard-pressed industry," Partee said in a reply to Butler, adding that he believed his remarks were off the record.

The issues involved in this contretemps have become somewhat moot with time and with the recent dramatic downturn in interest rates, but some of them remain.

"The decision to buy a home is, for most Americans, one of the most important decisions that they ever make," Butler pointed out. "Numerous factors must be considered, including the price, location, style and size of home; proximity to work; the appreciation rate; tax advantages; the prevailing interest rate and the monthly housing payments in relationship to monthly income.

"That decision, we believe, is best made by individuals in the marketplace and should not be unduly influenced by the biased opinion of public officials in Washington -- officials who may or may not know what they are talking about."