DEAR BOB: I own several apartment buildings that have substantially appreciated in market value since I bought them 10 to 15 years ago. I have positive cash flows and have enjoyed thousands of dollars of income tax savings. But I am concerned the buildings might decline in value if the inflation rate keeps rising. Do you think I should sell now? -- Ryan R. DEAR RYAN: Why sell unless you have a very good reason, such as seeking a better investment opportunity or thinking property values will decline because of adverse economic influences such as high unemployment?

If you are worried about inflation, remember that it is real estate's friend. The market value appreciation rate on most sound, well-located properties usually outpaces the inflation rate.

In addition, don't forget the benefits of leverage. Chances are you bought your properties with 10 percent to 20 percent cash down payments. Even if your properties appreciate in value just a few percent each year, your return on invested dollars is probably at least 20 percent to 30 percent, often more.

However, if you had a huge speculative profit, my advice would be different and I would recommend you sell. To illustrate, I was recently on a radio talk show where a caller asked if he should sell his land near Palmdale, Calif. (a growth area). He said the cost was about $8,500 and his land is now worth close to $500,000. My advice was to investigate if appreciation is expected to continue in the area, and if it is not, to sell or exchange now and enjoy the profits.

That was one of the few situations where an investor in raw land has obtained spectacular profits. Most land investors are lucky to break even after considering their carrying costs and the lost opportunities to make alternative investments. DEAR BOB: I own a strip shopping center in a rough part of town. Only two of my six stores are occupied. Can I claim a casualty loss tax deduction for my lost rent on the four vacant stores? Because of the high crime rate in the vicinity, I can't get any decent storekeepers to move in. -- Ruby G. DEAR RUBY: Sorry, but you cannot deduct your lost rent on your income tax returns. However, you can continue depreciating the vacant stores even though they are not bringing in rental income. Consult your tax adviser for further details. DEAR BOB: About six months ago my neighbor listed her home for sale with one of those discount real estate brokers. If they sold her home she would only have to pay a $3,900 commission and they would help her with all the details and paperwork.

But she was disappointed. She knew she would have to hold the weekend open houses, but the discount broker gave her virtually no help other than a few newspaper ads. Within two months she canceled the listing and signed up with a regular agent, who sold her home within a month.

I am getting ready to sell my home and wonder what you think about the discount real estate brokers. -- Arthur G. DEAR ARTHUR: Before signing a listing with a so-called discount brokers, investigate carefully. Just as you should with a full-service broker, ask for references of previous sellers and phone them to inquire: "Were you in any way unhappy with your agent and would you list another home for sale with the same agent?"

In my area I watch the "for sale" signs of the discount brokers carefully. They are often up for many months. Frequently they are replaced by signs of full-service brokers who usually sells the home. Rarely do I see a "sold" sign added to the discount broker's sign. While my informal survey is not scientific, I doubt I would list my property with a discount broker unless I see more evidence of sales success. DEAR BOB: We owe about $24,000 on our mortgage at 6.5 percent interest rate. I have been following your discussions about adding extra principal payments to the regular monthly mortgage payment to pay off the loan early and save interest. That seems to make sense, if the mortgage interest rate is high. But in our situation, do you think we should pay an extra $100 or so principal each month? -- Carlo H. DEAR CARLO: No. If you pay an extra $100 payment each month to reduce your loan's principal balance, you just invested that $100 at 6.5 percent interest. That's not a very good investment. However, if you had a higher interest rate mortgage, perhaps 10 percent or above, then I would recommend adding extra principal payments each month. DEAR BOB: The market for homes in our town is slow. It is definitely a "buyer's market." Our home has been listed for sale about three months, so we were thrilled when our agent phoned to say he had an offer on our house.

It was about 9:30 p.m. when our agent arrived with the buyer's agent. But we were disappointed at the low offer of almost $7,500 below our asking price, as we knew our home was priced fairly. Our agent suggested a counteroffer at $3,000 above the offer, but the buyer's agent said she was pretty sure her clients wouldn't accept. Since we were tired, against the advice of the agents we decided to sleep on the offer.

The next morning my husband and I decided to accept. At about 9 a.m. I called our agent to tell him we would accept. But he informed me the buyer's agent had already phoned to say the buyer was backing out, even though the offer said it was valid for two days. Can the buyer do this? -- Marla J. DEAR MARLA: Yes. Your situation is a classic example of why home sellers should accept a purchase offer quickly before the buyer revokes it.

An offer can be revoked at any time before it is accepted. Even though the offer said it was valid for two days, unless you paid consideration to keep the offer open, the buyer could revoke it during the two days before it was accepted.

Most cities now have "buyer's markets." That means there are more homes listed for sale than there are qualified buyers. It is a great time to be a buyer, but not such a good time to be a seller (except in a few hot markets such as Sacramento, Calif., and Seattle.). In a buyer's market, sellers can't be too fussy. Your situation shows why delay in accepting an offer can be expensive. Ask your attorney to explain further. DEAR BOB: We sold our last home about five years ago. I recall we got swindled by the termite inspection company. The purchase contract said the buyer's offer was subject to a satisfactory termite inspection report and the seller would pay for any damage. I'm sure the buyer hired the most expensive inspector in town because we had to pay almost $2,400 for repairs.

Now we are ready to sell our current home. How can I avoid being swindled again by a termite inspection company? -- Warren W. DEAR WARREN: Before you list your home for sale, have it professionally inspected by a licensed termite inspection company. If you don't like its estimated cost of repairs, get bids from other licensed companies to do the work.

Have the work completed before you sign the listing with a real estate agent. Then you won't be surprised by the termite damage repair costs when a buyer is found. Incidentally, your home will be more appealing to prospective buyers if they know the termite inspection has already been completed. DEAR BOB: I notice you always use the word "mortgage" to refer to a loan on a house. But I also have heard the term "trust deed" used to describe home loans. Is there any difference? Is a mortgage better than a trust deed? -- Roger M. DEAR ROGER: As you probably know, this column is published nationwide in many newspapers. Because everyone understands a mortgage is the device used to pledge real estate as security for a loan, I refer to mortgages while discussing real estate loans. However, in many states deeds of trust are used as security devices.

A mortgage involves two parties, the borrower and the lender. But a trust deed involves three parties, the borrower, the lender and the trustee. The trustee has nothing to do until the loan is paid in full and the trustee reconveys legal title to the borrower, or the borrower defaults and the trustee conducts a nonjudicial sale of the property.

Most lenders prefer trust deeds because of the speed of foreclosure sales and the fact that there is usually no redemption period after the trustee's sale. However, in most states there is a redemption period after a mortgage foreclosure sale. Ask a real estate attorney to explain further. DEAR BOB: Our home mortgage has an 11.25 percent fixed interest rate. I saw in the newspapers some lenders are advertising home loans around 8.5 percent interest. Do you think we should refinance? -- Brent R. DEAR BRENT: The general rule is that it pays to refinance a mortgage when you can reduce the interest rate at least 2 percent and repay finance costs within three years from payment savings. However, the 8.5 percent interest rate you saw advertised is probably an adjustable rate mortgage teaser and is not the bargain you may think.

This teaser interest rate usually applies to just the first three to six months. After that the ARM adjusts to an index rate plus a margin.

For example, an ARM tied to the cost of funds index with a 2 percentage point margin would cost about 9.4 percent after the teaser rate period. I don't think the risk of switching to an ARM makes it desirable for you to refinance at this time. DEAR BOB: My husband and I want to buy a home as soon as we save up a down payment. We read your articles every week and have learned much about real estate and buying a home. I hope we don't make the mistakes other people write about to you. My question is how can we be sure we can get the mortgage we will need to finance our home purchase? -- Nickie A. DEAR NICKIE: When buying a home, be sure to include a financing contingency clause in your purchase offer. If for some reason you are not able to obtain the mortgage you need, you can get your earnest money deposit refunded.

For example, such a finance contingency clause might read: "This purchase offer is contingent on buyers and property qualifying for a new 30-year first mortgage of at least $100,000 with a fixed interest rate not to exceed 10.5 percent, loan fee not more than 2 points and a monthly payment not more than $914.74."

Before you go shopping for a home, you may want to prequalify for a mortgage at a local bank or savings and loan, subject to appraisal of the home you select. Most lenders welcome prospective borrowers to prequalify because they know these buyers are likely to come back to that lender to obtain their home loan. By prequalifying, you will know the maximum mortgage you can obtain and how much down payment and seller financing you will need. However, just because you prequalify with one lender, don't stop shopping among other lenders to be sure you get the best loan. DEAR BOB: Some time ago you recommended a good place to find national lenders of reverse mortgages is Modern Maturity magazine. I agree. The local library had a copy and a contact for all the advertising lenders. However, each plan seems to be different. It is so confusing to a person like me, age 72, in good health, who wants to keep her home, but who needs extra monthly income.

My kids think I should sell my home, since it is free and clear, so I would net over $200,000. But a reverse mortgage would easily give me the $1,000 or so per month extra income I need. Can you give any guidance on the maze of reverse mortgages? -- Edna W. DEAR EDNA: Watch out for the lenders who want to acquire your home now and give you a fixed income for the rest of your life. If the home appreciates in value, they benefit but you don't, because all you have is a life estate.

Don't hesitate to seek advice from trusted advisers, such as your family, attorney, banker or other person who knows how to evaluate business decisions. Above all, don't be in a hurry or allow yourself to be pressured into making a decision. DEAR BOB: We are selling our home. The realty agent brought us an offer obtained by another agent. It is a pretty good offer, but it is signed only by the wife. The agent says the husband is on a long overseas trip and won't be back until next month. The wife seems nice and says her husband will like our home. But this seems risky. What do you think? -- Margo H. DEAR MARGO: If you accept that offer, I think you have a very shaky sale without the absent husband's signature on the purchase contract. Watch out. This may be a ploy to renegotiate the sale when the husband returns. Consult your attorney for details. DEAR BOB: I want to know why you use so many repeat questions about the ''over 55 rule'' $125,000 home sale exemption and how to roll over a home sale profit without paying tax? -- Agnes W. DEAR AGNES: I'm glad you've noticed how much interest there is in the subject of how to avoid tax when selling a principal residence. While there are many longtime repeat readers of this column, there is also a constantly changing audience of new home buyers and sellers. Once they accomplish their task, they often discontinue reading the real estate section. Because there is a new audience every week, I find it necessary to run the same types of questions over and over, since readers continue showing their interest by writing the same types of questions. DEAR BOB: Which do you think is a better investment, a single-family house or a two-family duplex? I ask because I am considering buying either. -- Herman C. DEAR HERMAN: I recommend buying a single-family house over a duplex, presuming both are in sound condition in a good location. The primary reason is that there is far stronger demand for single-family houses than for small income properties such as duplexes, thus causing houses generally to appreciate in market value better than small income properties. Also, you may not enjoy living next door to your tenant and being at their beck and call. DEAR BOB: I have a good job earning about $60,000 per year gross. My wife earns about $35,000 annually. But a few years ago we had illness and unemployment so our credit was ruined, although we are now paying our bills on time. We only have about $10,000 in the bank and, with a baby on the way, we are worried we will never be able to buy a home. After the baby is born, my wife plans to go back to work, since her mother will give the baby good care. Is there any way we can buy a home in our precarious situation? -- Joel R. DEAR JOEL: Of course you can buy a home. Surprisingly, your bad credit is not a serious drawback. However, the problem is your lack of cash for a down payment and closing costs.

But the situation is not hopeless, although your choice of homes will be limited by the credit and cash problems. One alternative is to buy a home with a large assumable first mortgage, such as an older VA or FHA loan, and an anxious seller who will carry back a large second mortgage. If the home has been on the market for several months and the seller doesn't need much cash, this situation will be ideal.

Another alternative is to find a seller who will carry back a first mortgage on a home that he owns free and clear. Retirees are especially good candidates for seller financing.

Still another choice is to lease a home with an option to buy. Look in the "houses for rent" newspaper classified ads. After you inspect a house you like, offer to lease it with an option to buy. To get the owner interested, offer to pay a large, nonrefundable "consideration for the option," perhaps $5,000. Be sure to negotiate a substantial rent credit toward your down payment. For example, I have several tenants paying $1,500 per month to rent their homes, but each month they get a $500 rent credit toward their down payment when they exercise their purchase option at a locked-in price. DEAR BOB: My dad became a millionaire in real estate. Although I am just a university freshman, I know already I want to earn my fortune in real estate, too, perhaps as you do by fixing up run-down houses. I am reading all the books I can about real estate and am enrolled in two basic real estate courses at a nearby community college two evenings a week.

But I am not clear about how a property buyer can be sure of getting good title. Last week I read a newspaper article about a scam where a husband forged his wife's signature on the deed to their home and left town with the sale profits. How can a buyer be sure of getting good title? -- Julie P. DEAR JULIE: When buying property, always get an owner's title insurance policy. This will protect you from unexpected title risks, such as forged signatures in the chain of title, income and property tax liens, claims of undiscovered heirs and a zillion other title loss possibilities. Even when buying real estate from friends and relatives, if you get an owner's title policy you won't have to worry. DEAR BOB: About two years ago I bought a condominium for 10 percent down and a 90 percent mortgage. Fortunately, the condo has gone up in value and is worth at least $5,000 more than I paid. I have about $20,000 equity. If I borrow the $20,000 on a home equity loan, will my interest be tax deductible? -- Richard T. DEAR RICHARD: Yes. Interest on a home equity loan, secured by your personal residence up to $100,000, is tax deductible on your federal income tax returns. But most home equity lenders will only loan up to 75 or 80 percent of the home's market value, although a few finance companies will loan up to 85 percent. DEAR BOB: We listed our home for sale with a real estate agent who works in a large brokerage office of about 50 salespeople. After holding an open house last Sunday, on Monday evening she presented us with a pretty good purchase offer from a buyer she met on Sunday. Since this was the first offer we received in the two months our home was listed, we were pleased.

Then on Tuesday morning she phoned to tell us another agent in her office has a "back-up" offer. Our agent delivered the second offer to us on Tuesday evening. It was much better than the first offer that we already accepted. But the date on the second offer was Monday.

When we questioned the agent, she claimed she didn't know about the offer on Monday evening when she presented her offer, which is about $5,500 lower. I can't understand why our agent didn't know about the second offer on Monday, can you? Should we do anything about it? -- Don R. DEAR DON: A real estate agent has a duty to present all offers to the property seller. Based on the facts you reported, it appears your listing agent either should have known about the second and better offer or she made herself unavailable until her lower offer could be presented to you.

I suggest you arrange a conference with the brokerage's manager and the salespeople to resolve this problem. Perhaps the company should pay you the $5,500 lost profit. If you are not satisfied with the outcome, you may want to report the matter to the state real estate commissioner for investigation. Readers with questions should write Robert J. Bruss directly at P.O. Box 280038, San Francisco, Calif. 94128.

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