It's the season for looking forward, for asking questions about the future.

So what's ahead for the real estate market, which has just finished its most robust year ever, propping up an otherwise sickly U.S. economy? Low mortgage rates led to record home sales and mortgage refinancing volume.

It was such a strong year that the big question is whether it can last, or whether the housing market has become a bubble, a la tech stocks.

Now, prospective home sellers ask, "Is the market going to crash? Should I sell my house before it does?"

Home shoppers ask, "Should I buy now, or wait?"

And those with no plans to buy or sell ask, "Should I refinance my mortgage, or will interest rates go down even more?"

So, we turned to the experts for some answers -- housing economists, builders and others who closely follow the industry in the Washington region and nationally.

Their comments were surprisingly uniform -- they do not predict any drastic collapse. Interest rates will likely edge up over the year, they predict. House prices will continue to rise, from 2 percent to 6 percent, but not as steeply as they have been. Sales will slow, but remain high. The Washington area market will remain one of the nation's strongest.

"The good news is that housing is not falling off the chair," said Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at Wells Fargo & Co. "Yes, there will be some contraction, but we've been saying that for a long time."

Of course, nobody knows for sure what is going to happen. There were few economists a year ago who were willing to predict that the real estate market in 2002 would be as strong as it was while the rest of the economy slumped.

But right or not so right, here is what the trend-watchers think, in their own words:

House Prices

House prices escalated through much of the country for much of the year, with the most recent federal statistics showing that prices in the third quarter were up 6.16 percent, compared with a year earlier.

"Price increases will slow down quite a bit. They already have. But we don't expect to see, except for in a few peculiar situations, any downward pressure on prices. There are probably still some adjustments to be made in Silicon Valley.

"We see house prices rising between 3 and 4 percent [this] year.

"Here in the Washington area, though, if things don't slow down, we may have a bubble developing. At this point, there is still a lot of upward pressure on prices in the Washington metro area. Demand is still strong. We see price increases here [this] year, but not as much as last year."

-- Michael Carliner

economist,

National Association of Homebuilders

"Home price gains will moderate. We can't continue to see appreciation rates of 7-8 percent. They'll be more like 4-5 percent nationally. It's very, very unlikely that there will be some tremendous drop in prices.

"The D.C. area has had much stronger appreciation rates than the rest of the country. They were basically catching up because of slower growth than average in the mid-'90s. Gains will slow here, but we expect Washington home price gains to remain above the national average."

-- David Berson

chief economist, Fannie Mae

"Housing prices will continue to rise, but at a much slower rate in the Washington area. Some sub-markets will soften though, those where people paid way too much for their houses last year. Like Loudoun County. They had an enormous price increase in 2001 -- 22 percent. Prices went up way too fast there. They may fall some."

-- Stephen S. Fuller

regional economist and professor of public policy, George Mason University

"The increase in home values will continue in D.C. [this] year as demand for homes in D.C. stays high. The bubble won't burst."

-- Dale Mattison

president,

Greater Capital Association of Realtors

"The 2003 real estate market will look like the 1997 market in terms of home price appreciation and sales -- 1997 was the fourth best year on record, though. We're in for a slow leveling off. Supply and demand will balance out."

-- Patrick Jablonski

chairman, Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, and an agent with Better Homes Realty Inc.

"House prices will rise between 2 and 4 percent nationally. It'll be a pretty significant slowdown. In Washington, the rate of increase in house prices will certainly slow. Government revenues are not going up as rapidly as they used to. And there will be some break in government spending in the future."

-- Sung Won Sohn

chief economist, Wells Fargo & Co.

"Home prices are going to slow down. They have already. But we're not looking at any collapse in home prices. But they can't go up faster than income. We're looking at a 4-5 percent rise in prices [this] year."

-- David Wyss

chief economist,

Standard & Poor's Corp.

"We're forecasting a moderating of prices. We're forecasting prices will go up in the 4-5 percent range on a national basis."

-- Van Davis

president and chief executive,

Century 21 Real Estate Corp.

"House prices will moderate. There will still be positive growth, but it'll be in the 3-5 percent range."

-- John Silvia

chief economist, Wachovia Corp.

"We see both prices and sales rising in Prince George's County [this] year. They're increasing because we still have affordable homes and buyers are increasingly looking for something affordable."

-- Connie Stommel

president-elect, Prince George's County Association of Realtors, and an agent at Re/Max100 Real Estate

Mortgage Rates

Mortgage rates hit their lowest levels in about four decades last year; as of this week rates averaged 5.85 percent for a 30-year fixed-rate loan, according to Freddie Mac.

"I expect a gradual upturn in rates. We have 30-year fixed rates going to 6.75 percent by the third quarter and ending the year at 6.85 percent."

-- John Silvia

chief economist, Wachovia Corp.

"Rates are going to stay reasonably low and fairly attractive. We see a gradual rising throughout the year. That's one of the factors that will hold back the rate of increase in house prices. We think they'll rise to about 6.5 percent [this] year and end the year closer to 7 percent."

-- Sung Won Sohn

chief economist, Wells Fargo & Co.

"We see a modest rise in rates [this] year. Once the Fed [Federal Reserve] is certain about sustained economic growth, they'll start to tighten [short-term rates]. Not too sharp, but perhaps 100 basis points [1 percent] over the year. Thirty-year rates are now around 6 percent. We'll be surprised if they're over 6.5 by the end of 2003. Refinancings will fall off as rates go up."

-- David Berson

chief economist, Fannie Mae

"We're expecting rates to stay low through the early part of the year, probably moving up toward the end of the year. We're predicting an average of 6.3 percent for the year, probably 6.5 percent by the end of the year."

-- David Wyss

chief economist,

Standard & Poor's Corp.

"Interest rates will stay low. They won't go up dramatically."

-- Stephen S. Fuller

regional economist and professor of public policy, George Mason University

"In the first and second quarters of 2003, we think rates will be in the 6.2-6.3 range. Then we believe the Fed [Federal Reserve] will act, probably increasing [short-term] rates by 100 basis points [1 percent]. By the fourth quarter of [this] year, we believe rates will average about 6.8 percent. Our prediction is just a bit higher than others. It's based on our belief that the economy will pick back up. Rates go up when the economy gets better because demand for capital investment increases."

-- Doug Duncan

chief economist,

Mortgage Bankers Association

"Our best guess is that interest rates will be moderately higher as the year progresses. We don't appear to be in any grave danger of sharply rising mortgage rates. As the year progresses, the economy should improve in a broader fashion and that should start to lift rates a little bit. The 40-year lows we saw [last] year are not likely to remain with us for very long."

-- Keith Gumbinger

HSH Associates,

financial surveyors and publishers

"I absolutely never answer that question, but since you insist, I'll try. I don't think rates will go significantly lower than they are now. But I don't think they're going to go up much for a while unless something radical happens politically. There's really nothing to make them go up.

"People ask me this all the time. 'What's going to happen? Will rates go up? Will they go down?' Interest rates are absolutely fabulous now. Everybody who hasn't refinanced should be refinancing."

-- Carrie Staples

mortgage broker,

Sigma Financial, Great Falls

"No one has a crystal ball, but I think rates will probably stay in the same range for at least the first quarter of [this] year as the economy continues to try and dig out.

"When the stock market rebounds, rates will go up. But I don't see that happening in the first quarter of the year. But remember, nobody knows what's going to happen."

-- Steve Calem

senior mortgage banker,

Washington Savings Bank

Home Design

Americans continue to buy houses that are lavish by historic standards.

"Houses are going to get just a little bit bigger. We're already well over 2,000 square foot for the average house. That's an awful lot for 2.5 people, which is the average number of people per household. But still, houses will get bigger.

"The increased space comes in a few places. Houses have more and more bathrooms these days. Practically no houses will be built with only one bathroom, as they were in the 1970s.

"There will also be more closet space. And master bedrooms are no longer just bedrooms. They're suites now and they'll get even bigger. We're putting a lot of that extra space in the master bedroom suite. In upper-end houses, the master bathroom is as big as the bedrooms were in older big houses.

"Living rooms will continue to shrink and disappear. We're hearing more builders doing away with living rooms altogether. As they hear that other builders are having success selling houses without living rooms, they're doing it, too.

"Family rooms and kitchens are also getting larger.

"We're seeing more technical stuff in the house. More houses are pre-wired for computer hookups and multiple phone lines."

-- Stanley Doubinis

director of forecasting, National Association of Homebuilders

"People are looking for media rooms and home theaters. They also want more customization, like sunrooms, conservatories, finished rec rooms, bars downstairs. Usually they would wait to do these things themselves. Now, with rates so low, they're just getting us to do it. These low rates means they can roll it all into their mortgages.

"Customers want open foyers again and open two-story family rooms with big stairs and often a second set of stairs from the kitchen."

-- Geaton DeCesaris

chief operating officer,

K. Hovnanian Cos.

"Ceilings are moving up. The eight-foot ceiling is vanishing. Now they're all nine-feet tall and more.

"The kitchen is getting more and more counter space, more cabinets. And every kitchen has a central island. Before that was just for upscale homes. Now in the average home, you're going to see more and more central islands.

"With materials, the trend is toward maintenance-free products."

-- Gopal Ahluwalia

director of research,

National Association of Homebuilders

"We continue to see an exceptionally strong demand for one-floor condominiums from empty-nesters. Big condos, 1,400 square feet and larger. We're also seeing people buying two condos and combining them."

-- Tom Bozzuto

chief executive, Bozzuto Group Inc.

"High ceilings are popular in kitchen-family room additions and so are high windows. They both give a feeling of added space. So, cathedral ceilings, coffered ceilings and tray ceilings.

"In bathrooms, separate tubs and showers, Jacuzzi tubs, and toilets that are separated from the main bathroom with a pocket door. Hardwood floors are also becoming more popular in bathrooms. About 20 percent of our clients put hardwood in their bathrooms now.

"People are also getting very serious about their plasma TVs. We're designing around the television and sometimes we get the input of a multimedia person to advise us on speaker placement, where to put the furniture and the like."

-- John Coburn

principal, Bowers Construction Group, McLean

"We're going to see more three-car garages, more home offices. We'll see a continued shift away from living rooms and the trend toward more informal, practical specialized space will continue."

-- Michael Carliner

economist, National Association of Homebuilders

Remodeling

So what's up with the fix-it market?

"2002 was not a good year for remodeling. It was the worst year for this cycle. When the economy goes down, remodeling usually goes down a lot further. In the third quarter of 2002, there was a 3.3 percent growth in remodeling year to year.

"[This] year, we're expecting it to pick up, about 5 percent for the year. As we see the economy improve and fundamentals stay solid, there's nowhere to go but up."

-- Kermit Baker

director, Remodeling Futures Program, Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies

"I think remodeling will be good in the Washington area in 2003. Homeowners have a lot of equity and interest rates are low.

"We have between $1.5 million and $2 million worth of backlog now. It's not as big of a backlog as it was a year ago, though.

"We're seeing a trend toward smaller projects. The $500,000-$700,000 projects are coming up less frequently. The projects tend to be more modest now. Some of the people who would do the bigger projects are holding back now; they're feeling more conservative because the stock market is not as robust."

-- Bruce Wentworth

Wentworth Levine Architect Builder, Silver Spring

"[This] year should remain positive for remodeling. I think with interest rates staying low, we will be in a productive environment. There's no prevailing fears among remodelers. Everyone feels pretty positive about the future.

"We're not just order takers anymore, though. We have to use our sales skills now. Two years ago, it was hard to keep up. You have to work for your nickel now, but it's still there. It's been a reality check.

"I have a four-month backlog now, but it went all the way up to eight months earlier.

"It's a more positive environment for consumers. But they still need to do their due diligence before picking a remodeler. Don't go in the wrong direction."

-- Bob Gallagher

president, Washington area chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, and partner in Sun Design Remodeling in Burke

"If rates stay where they are, remodeling will stay very active in this area. If rates increase, that'll make remodeling a little less affordable. About half of our clients finance their remodeling projects through home equity lines of credit. The remaining use traditional construction loans. All are dependent on interest rates.

"People certainly aren't doing the million-dollar renovations as frequently. Project size has leveled off. People's mutual fund portfolios have taken hits. So it's a balancing act between lowered portfolio performance and good interest rates.

"Everyone is concerned about the economy now, but you just can't beat these rates."

-- John Coburn

principal, Bowers Construction Group, McLean

"There will be more remodeling activity in 2003. The increases in home prices encourages remodeling. And since we've seen very high rates of existing home sales, that makes for more remodeling, too. People tend to remodel right after they move in. Because some people had trouble getting remodeling jobs done, there's a pent-up demand there."

-- Michael Carliner

economist,

National Association of Homebuilders

Home Sales and Starts

Home sales and home starts are on track to set annual records in 2002, topping the previous records set in 2001.

"No growth in housing starts [builders beginning construction]. And a slowdown in existing home sales. Both of them flat for the year."

-- John Silvia

chief economist, Wachovia Corp.

"We're going to build more houses [this] year than we did in this area [last] year. [In 2002], we built about 1,800 homes. This year, the number will be more like 2,200."

-- Geaton DeCesaris

chief operating officer,

K. Hovnanian Cos.

"Housing starts will be down a little bit. It's hard to keep the pace we've had. We don't have a lot of pent-up demand for new housing. After a recession, you usually have a lot of people who didn't buy and now want to. But we didn't really have a recession in housing. So we don't have the potential to unleash that additional demand that we normally would at this stage in the economic cycle. So housing starts will be down about 3 percent [this] year over last year."

-- Michael Carliner

economist,

National Association of Homebuilders

"Housing starts will be down [this] year even though the level of homebuilding activity will remain fairly high. The composition of the homes builders are building will change, though. They're going to be building more affordable homes as opposed to just expensive homes. Expensive homes aren't selling as well, so builders are going back to more affordable homes.

"Home sales will slow as well after reaching a record [in 2002]. Existing home sales will go down slightly because of higher mortgage rates and sluggish economic conditions."

-- Sung Won Sohn

chief economist, Wells Fargo & Co.

"We're looking for a drop-off in housing starts, mostly in the second half of the year as mortgage rates creep up.

"Sales of existing homes will also drop a bit from last year, but will still be very strong.

"At some point, everyone already has a home."

-- David Wyss

chief economist,

Standard & Poor's Corp.

"Sales won't be as good as last year, neither new homes or resales. We won't break the records of last year. Increased rates are going to take some energy out of the housing market. But the economy is going to be in better shape and that will counteract some of that softening in rates. So increased rates will not be as important as they would've been [in 2002]. There's no big bubble in housing."

-- Stephen S. Fuller

regional economist and professor of public policy, George Mason University

"We'll see a slight moderation in existing home sales, maybe down up to 1 percent. It'll still be a pretty strong year for new construction."

-- Van Davis

president and chief executive,

Century 21 Real Estate Corp.

"For single-family housing starts, we're projecting a 2.5 percent drop. In multi-family starts, it'll be more like a 7 percent drop. The decline in sales will be pretty moderate: 3 percent for new-home sales and 4.4 percent for existing-home sales."

-- Doug Duncan

chief economist,

Mortgage Bankers Association

"There will be no increase in home sales [this] year. We're probably looking at a 2-3 percent fall-off. But still, it'll be the second- or third-highest level ever."

-- David Berson

chief economist, Fannie Mae

Apartment Rentals

The rental market loosened somewhat in 2002, with landlords vying for tenants by offering free rent and other inducements in some neighborhoods. Among the reasons: Tenants were becoming homeowners at the same time that lots of new apartment buildings were opening.

"We're expecting a pretty steep climb in the vacancy rate in the District, not much of a change in Northern Virginia and a bit of an uptick in suburban Maryland.

"Rents have already slid 3-4 percent in Northern Virginia. We think they'll remain relatively stable over the next couple of years. Suburban Maryland still has a bit more to go in this correction. We'll probably have a 2-3 percent decline in rents in suburban Maryland before they stabilize.

"The District will have the worst slide. What you get that you shouldn't get, you'll eventually have to give back. Rents went up 14 percent in one year in the District. We see a decline of as much as 5-8 percent in rents in 2003 in the District.

"It's not a matter of people not wanting to live in the District, quite the contrary. The trend of wanting to live in the center of the city is only growing. But there's just too much product vying for those who can afford class A apartments.

"And because real estate is a commodity, just like corn, when we have too much, prices drop.

"The rental pipeline has shrunk, though. At one point, we had 25,000 units being planned for the whole metropolitan area. That's gone down to about 21,500. Some projects have been delayed; some have been turned into for-sale condos; some projects have just been put on hold.

"It's better times for tenants, more of a tenant's market. For many, many years, it's been a landlord's market."

-- Greg Leisch

chief executive,

Delta Associates, a research firm

"We see modest improvement in occupancies throughout the year with significant improvement by year-end.

"The rental market has softened, but we think it'll get better from the landlord's point of view. By the end of the year, we'll be seeing job growth again. And it's hard to believe interest rates will be as low as they've been. Both of those factors have contributed to the softening we've seen in the apartment market.

"There will be some sub-markets where you will see further softening. Downtown Washington will be the most acute because of the volume of new apartments being brought into the market there. The situation down there is a little scary.

"The Northern Virginia rental market has had the most trouble. We're seeing some of those apartment projects being converted to condos. I believe that job growth should help that market tighten up by year-end."

-- Tom Bozzuto

chief executive, Bozzuto Group Inc.

"The rental market will be pretty similar to last year's, which is to say, a pretty good time to be a renter. Renting is a much better value compared to ownership than it was two years ago because sales prices have increased a lot while effective rents [taking concessions into account] are lower.

"There's a lot of cranes in downtown D.C. right now. It's great for the city because a residential neighborhood will be established there. But there's a lot of new product. Downtown Bethesda will also see a bunch of new deliveries [this] year.

"There's the perception that Northern Virginia is starting to pull out of the cyclical trough. It hit bottom earlier in 2002, and people are hoping that 2003 will be a stronger year there.

"In 2001, occupancies were running about 98.5-99 percent. Now they're at 93-94 percent. So concessions by landlords are there. Some communities are even offering two months' free rent. We've got concessions in certain sub-markets, like the I-270 corridor in Maryland and in some communities in Northern Virginia.

"When will the rental market pick up for landlords? It all depends on job growth and the economy. When job growth picks up, the rental market will be about 3-6 months behind it. It's probably never been a better time to be a renter in this area."

-- Matt Birenbaum

regional vice president for development, Avalon Bay Communities