To entice buyers for their one-bedroom Boston condominium unit, Kenneth and Cheryl Bell are prepared to offer just about anything from low-cost financing to the newly renovated kitchen sink.

In Culver City, Calif., Bruce Preston is a bit more relaxed. He expects to sell his three-bedroom stucco colonial about $20,000 below the asking price within a month. But he laments, "If this was a year and a half ago, it would have taken a week."

The Bells and Preston live on opposite coasts but are coping with a housing malaise that's sweeping much of the country, a reflection of higher interest rates, tougher mortgage lenders and troubled regional economies.

Experts say it's difficult to generalize about something as varied and vast as the American real estate market, where one home sits unsold for months while another might get snapped up quickly.

Nonetheless, a random sampling of sellers nationwide suggests more sob stories and fewer successes.

"There are a great many markets doing well and a significant number that are pretty flat. Unfortunately, the flat markets are where most people live," said John Tuccillo, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, a professional trade group of property brokers that tracks housing trends.

Real estate hot spots this year include the Pacific Northwest and portions of the Midwest and the South, experts said.

The cooler spots, which represent some good buying opportunities, are largely in the Northeast and Southwest.

"I call it democratization," said Robert Van Order, chief economist for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Co. {Freddie Mac}, a federally chartered company that buys mortgages.

"The Northeast had it good for several years. Now it's slowing down. The Midwest and Southwest are coming back. I think the West will always be good," he said.

Even so, the "good" markets such as California aren't immune to sluggishness.

Preston, a 30-year-old social worker selling his three-bedroom Culver City house, said he recently lowered the asking price about 2 percent to $299,000. That would have been unheard of 18 months ago. He expects it to sell for around $290,000.

The biggest losers, though, have been those who bought when prices were at their peak and are now trying to sell into softened demand.

Some sellers, particularly in the Northeast, have resorted to desperate gimmicks ranging from higher broker commissions to free trips to Disney World.

Others have turned to the auction block, once a forum for bankrupt farmers and professional business liquidators.

Jim Gall, president of Auction Co. of America in Miami, said he expects auctions in single-family homes to quadruple this year to around $100 million.

The Bells of Boston are good examples of eager sellers. Their first step was to make the price attractive: $78,000 for the condominium they bought three years ago for $80,000, even though they renovated the kitchen and bathroom.

While ads for the condominium highlight those improvements, they also promise "owner will help," a rarity just three years ago when prices were higher.

Bell, a 27-year-old laborer, said he and his wife were willing to aid potential buyers in obtaining financing or even lend them the closing costs. The Bells need more space for a growing family.

Feeling more pressured is Andres Deleon, a 26-year-old businessman relocating to Venezuela.

Deleon is hoping buyers will be attracted to the cut-rate price on his two-bedroom condominium a few neighborhoods away from the Bells. He's asking $79,000, about 20 percent below what he paid four years ago.

Underlying the real estate problem has been high mortgage rates. They crept toward 11 percent in March after falling into the single digits earlier this year.

Rates on conventional 30-year mortgages now average around 10 percent, but some economists say they could edge up again soon.

"The rates are what's killing me," said George Mojica, a 64-year-old retired maintenance supervisor, who wants to sell his Baldwin, N.Y., house and move to Florida. "Once interest rates go down, there will probably be more activity."

The run up in rates has caused single-family home sales and housing starts to fall to the lowest levels since the 1982 recession.

In April, the last month for which data is available, new home sales fell 1.6 percent, the fifth straight monthly drop, to a nearly 7 1/2-year low, government data show.

The National Association of Realtors said April sales of existing homes fell 2.1 percent.

Starts for houses and apartments fell 5.8 percent that month, the third consecutive monthly decline, to the lowest rate since October 1982. For single-family homes alone the decline was 7.5 percent.

Mortgage volume, a barometer of housing industry health, totaled $390 billion in 1989, 16 percent lower than four years earlier.

The Mortgage Bankers Association of America estimates mortgage volume will fall to $380 billion this year.

A more informative picture of lending emerges in regional looks at mortgage activity, which reflect the health of the local economies.

For instance, Stephen Ashley, president of Silbey Corp. of Rochester, N.Y., a mortgage lender in the troubled Northeast, said applications were off between 10 percent and 15 percent in the first four months of this year.

By contrast, Ronnie J. Wynn, president of Colonial Mortgage Co. in Montgomery, Ala., said business is booming, with volume during the same period up to $85 million from $25 million.

Wynn said the gain reflects the company's decision to move into healthier regions, such as Atlanta and Houston, and out of depressed areas.

Many lenders stress that even in areas where the housing market is sluggish, slightly higher interest rates don't mean they aren't willing to loan mortgage money.

"The residential home buyer still has plenty of credit availble," Ashley said. "It's still within the realm of what we could determine to be affordable."

Nonetheless, home buyers face more restrictions than they did a few years ago.

For example, most banks are asking for higher down payments, generally at least 10 percent of the price of a home.

They're also abandoning some gimmicks once used to lure borrowers, such as "no-doc" or "low-doc" loans, in which they approved some loans without verifying an applicant's income or employment.

"I think we're basically back to basics a little bit more," said Ashley.

In addition, lenders have been monitoring business conditions more closely, wary of plunging into areas where job layoffs or cyclical industries such as auto making or defense work could affect a homeowner's financial health.

"Now I think lenders are trying to be more predicting in terms of where the local economies are going and how the housing markets are doing," said Fred Koons, chairman of Chase Home Mortgage Corp. in Tampa. "They adjust credit to reflect those forecasts."

Chase, for instance, is looking at home appraisals more carefully, Koons said.

"Your reliance on appraisal is high particularly if markets are not inflationary," he said.