Buying a home, real estate, mortgageBuying a home is a major decision, and it can feel like a gamble. If you buy now, will real estate prices plummet? Will mortgage rates fall? Or is now the perfect time to snag the home of your dreams?

On June 19, at Equifax’s “Is Now the Time to Buy a Home?” webinar, Steve Cook, Amy Crews Cutts, and I discussed what homebuyers need to know about today’s real estate market.

Mortgage interest rates are rising, but remain low.

We are seeing mortgage interest rates slowly start to rise. They are hovering around 4 percent, nearly two-thirds of a percentage point higher than last month.

But according to Amy Crews Cutts, chief economist for Equifax, today’s interest rates are the best you’ll get, and 4 percent is still very low. “They could go lower, but don’t bet on it,” Cutts said.

Right now, the Federal Reserve is pumping $85 billion into the economy each month by purchasing $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities and $45 billion in longer-term U.S. securities. This quantitative easing is keeping a lid on interest rates. When the Fed takes its foot off the accelerator, rates will go up. Just how much they will go up, however, remains a mystery.

“It’s hard to guess when the market will bottom out, but we are years off from seeing interest rates rise to 6 percent,” Cutts said.

If you have an interest rate of 4 percent or lower, you may want to lock in that low rate before it goes up again.

Inventory and seasonal demand are impacting home prices.

According to Steve Cook, former vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Realtors and Equifax Finance Blog contributor, a tight inventory of homes is plaguing housing markets across the country.

“Homes aren’t there for people to buy,” Cook said. “There are bidding wars in parts of the country because of the lack of inventory.”

It appears home prices are starting to rise, too—but these gains are mostly seasonal. Everyone is in a rush to buy and sell in the warmer months, driving up prices. There can be up to a 3 percent price difference between homes sold in the summer and winter.

“There is double the amount of inventory in the fall and winter months,” Cook said. This increase in inventory means many sellers must price their homes competitively to make them attractive to buyers.

Is now the time to buy a home?

Things are looking up: Mortgage rates are low despite recent gains, and new data shows the inventory of homes on the market is starting to increase—all good news for buyers.

“What we are seeing is a staircase recovery,” Cook said. “There is a significant increase in progress right now, but it won’t happen all at once. There will be periods of falling and rising homes prices. In the next year we will see more progress fall off but also an increase of inventory, and it will be a better situation for buyers.”

If you’re looking to buy now, pay attention to housing price trends and inventory in the area in which you are looking to buy. “If inventories are rising, wait until the fall and winter months to buy so sellers are willing to negotiate,” Cook said.

Still, getting approved for a mortgage is a hurdle that many of today’s buyers must overcome.

According to Cook, “40 percent of people who apply for a residential mortgage are turned down today.”

If you have a credit score below 700, start looking for homes that are priced lower than you initially planned. In doing so, Cutts said, you will be much more attractive to lenders.

Whether you’re ready to buy now or plan to wait a few months to see if prices drop, be sure to do your research. By understanding your local real estate market and what it takes to get a mortgage today, you will have a better chance of closing on your dream home.

Ilyce Glink is the author of ten books, including the bestselling 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask. Her nationally syndicated column, “Real Estate Matters,” appears in more than 125 newspapers and Websites, and her online “Ask Ilyce” columns are read by hundreds of thousands of people every month. She is a top-rated radio host on WSB Radio in Atlanta, the Home Equity blogger at CBS MoneyWatch.com, host of the Internet program “Expert Real Estate Tips,” managing editor of the Equifax Personal Finance Blog, and publisher of ThinkGlink.com.