The words "as is" used to loom over a house for sale like a storm cloud. The words applied to estate sales and foreclosures. They did not apply to a house you could buy and just move into.

No more. Far from being a stigma, "as is" actually has become a ploy in this brisk real estate market.

When used by a seller with a good property in a desirable neighborhood, it has come to mean "Take it or leave it."

When used by a buyer--often one who already has lost out on a few sales contracts and is frustrated by how few houses are on the market--it's code for "I want it and I won't make trouble."

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but area agents are sure as-is sales are way up. "In the last year, it's probably gone from about 10 percent of houses to about 30 percent," said Keene Taylor Jr. of Taylor Real Estate in Chevy Chase.

And home inspector Charles Hayes with Faro Systems Inc. added: "I would say a third of the houses I inspect are sold as-is now."

An as-is sale, in general, means the seller makes no promises about the condition of a house, and has no intention of correcting any defects a potential buyer may find.

But new territory is being charted every day.

"I had a seller tell me recently that, no, he's not going to fix the furnace, even though by law he should," said Robyn Burdett of Re/Max Xecutex in Northern Virginia.

By law, and according to the standard contract, the seller is obliged to convey the plumbing, heating and air conditioning, lighting and electrical systems, as well as all appliances, in working order. "Now, even what's in the [standard] contract is becoming negotiable," Burdett said. And "a lot of sellers are saying, 'Don't nickel-and-dime me,' right upfront."

Many sellers--and buyers--going the as-is route aren't coming clean immediately. Their take-it-or-leave-it stance comes out only when negotiations begin.

"It's more of an 'understood' type thing," Burdett said. "It's not like you have sellers saying they're selling their house 'as is.' It's all after the fact."

And buyers? "They're saying, 'Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Seller, we're not going to give you a nit-picky list of repairs,' " said Taylor of Taylor Real Estate. "Even if a property isn't listed 'as is', it's a way for [the buyers] to sweeten the pot."

So what you're left with is houses that go to contract complete with an inspection contingency that will let potential buyers back out if serious problems aren't fixed. But then, when problems emerge, sellers are balking at making the fixes, turning the deal into a de facto as-is sale.

Take Jeff Bounds, who with his wife, Melanie, recently bought a five-bedroom Colonial on a quiet cul-de-sac in Herndon for $255,000.

The Boundses saw the house they wanted to buy the first day they went looking. It was the first house they were going to buy as a married couple and only about the 10th house they had seen. They put in a contract the next day--one of three offers.

They included an inspection-contingency clause. But to make their full-price contract more attractive, the Boundses told the sellers they didn't really care about the home inspection unless it revealed something truly drastic.

"We already knew the roof needed replacing in a few years," said Bounds, who is in the flooring business. "We didn't want the buyer to worry that we would make that an issue and then back out."

The Boundses ended up getting the house, and plan to move in this week. "We're thrilled we got it," Bounds said.

Not all buyers are like the Boundses, however.

Some, uncomfortable at paying what they know is top dollar, are presenting their sellers with a laundry list of repairs following the home inspection.

"I've seen buyers present two and three pages of stuff to remove the home inspection contingency," said Hal Epstein, a settlement lawyer in Maryland. "Nail down a board, tighten a screw, adjust a switch plate, that kind of thing. I even had a settlement delayed 45 minutes over a smoke detector, which is a $10 item."

Real estate lawyer Eric Rome agrees.

"Buyers are paying top dollar for houses now," said Rome of Eisen & Rome P.C. "And when they do that, they expect a Cadillac."

Rome said that over the past year, he has gotten into more "fights about inspection contingencies than I had over the past five years before then."

Even when sellers accept contracts with an inspection contingency, they can have alternative plans.

In fact, agents report they are keeping backup contracts warm so they can avoid fix-this-and-that scenarios for their sellers--again, thereby selling the houses "as is" without saying that upfront.

And home inspectors say sellers are dictating many of the terms of the inspections.

"I'm getting many more calls where buyers say the seller has only given them 48 hours to do the home inspection," said home inspector Richard Robins, owner of R. Robins Inc. "They're also saying to the buyer, 'If you want my house, take it as is. Inspect it all you want, but take it as is.' "

It's usually only the big problems that sellers will confront, because in many cases, they have to in order to sell the house. But even then, it's oftentimes the buyers who have to bow to fixing the problems themselves.

Nicole and Harald Ehrentraut, an American-Austrian couple who recently relocated to the United States from Vienna, fell in love with a four-bedroom Colonial in the Brookmead development in Darnestown, Md., that had been on the market several months. They knew something was wrong with the house, however, because the front porch had pulled away from the house diagonally.

The Ehrentrauts made an offer, contingent on a home inspection. The inspector found settlement problems that had damaged the porch and also had caused the garage floor to sink. He also found termite damage in the attic crawl space.

"The owners chose to correct some small issues, but they wouldn't do anything structural," said Nicole Ehrentraut, who said she thought theirs was the only offer on the house. "We accepted that, but we negotiated heavily on the price." The Ehrentrauts managed to get $19,000 off the listing price--but their quotes to fix all the problems range up to $22,000, she said.

Home inspector Robins attributes the rise in "as is" houses also to the increasing number of rental houses now going up for sale.

Home inspector Charles Hayes calls some of these de facto "as is" sales "particularly nasty." But buyers still seem to be taking it.

"The seller tells them they're not going to do anything at all," Hayes said. "The buyers, even though disgruntled, want to get on with their life. They take this bitter medicine and just fix everything themselves."