When Francis Bodie was transferred to Denver, the network engineer figured he'd stay in the basement of a friend's suburban home for a couple of weeks while he searched for a house.

He was there for three months.

Finding a place to call home has become a survival-of-the-quickest competition in metropolitan Denver, where a population boom has sent the housing market spiraling.

Like many other house hunters, Bodie learned to ferret out "for sale" signs, and to hurry to inspect a house as soon as his real estate agent called.

He also realized early on that he needed a pre-approved mortgage to stand out, since sellers often receive offers that top their asking price, some coming in cash.

"It's kind of like a traffic jam," Bodie said. "Everyone gets backed up."

House hunters resort to sending out fliers to "sell" themselves to sellers. They build networks of friends and relatives who may know of a hot property. And they drop everything once they learn of a prospect.

After a decade of stagnation, Denver's economy has boomed in the 1990s as companies have been drawn there by affordable housing and labor costs. With the boom has come workers--many of them.

In 1998, Census Bureau statistics placed Colorado among the five fastest growing states, posting a 2 percent increase in population. The state is expected to have nearly 4.1 million people by 2000, according to estimates.

Also last year, Denver was second only to San Francisco in rising housing costs, with prices climbing 4.5 percent--about twice the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And prices continue to increase. Two months ago, an average house in metro Denver cost $211,194--a 10 percent hike from July 1998, according to Perry and Butler Realty, a local firm.

Meanwhile, low apartment vacancy rates have led to waiting lists of people willing to snatch new units as soon as they become available. Apartment prices have increased as well, statistics show.

The market madness is being driven by newcomers hailing from higher-priced regions, who come to Colorado with a lot of money to spend, said Richard Wobbekind, University of Colorado's director of business research.

As bigger, more expensive houses are built, many Coloradans go after them as well, further increasing competition.

"This is a new phenomenon for Colorado," Wobbekind said. "That's why there is a shock going on."

Economists believe the housing boom will settle by year's end, when the construction industry catches up with demand.

In the meantime, the hunt remains a frustrating, seemingly endless task for many.

In his search, Jeff Schaich, a Boulder graphic designer, said he often found several groups trying to inspect town houses for sale at the same time.

"Talk about feeling the pressure," said Schaich, 34, who had seven bids rejected before he was able to buy.

Boulder real estate agent Rich Gribbon said buyers often have just a few minutes to decide whether to submit a bid. "You don't even remember the color of the carpet," he said.

Real estate agent Susan Joslyn said she has even handed out fliers about families who want to buy houses in certain neighborhoods. When there are no houses for sale, agents go door-to-door to see if homeowners have thought about selling.

"We tell buyers you have to be diligent, you can't be casual about it," she said. "You have to treat it almost like a job."