Do you go in at the price you’re willing to pay? Offer 10 percent below list price, hoping the seller will meet you in the middle? Or, should you do something in between?

Unfortunately, there is no generic perfect offer formula that will get the seller to say “yes” every time. Each offer to purchase has to start to be built like a tower of wooden blocks, with enough structure and pizzazz to get the seller’s attention.

Let’s start with price. It’s important to determine how much a house is worth before you make an offer. (This would seem obvious, but there are plenty of buyers who get caught up in the heat of the moment — especially in a hot sellers market — and just offer up a number.)

The answer to the question of worth lies with your broker or agent. He or she has access to the sales data that can tell you what homes are on the market in your price range, what homes in the neighborhood are selling for, and how long they took to sell. These are generally referred to as “comps” and you can ask your agent to put together a list of homes that have recently sold in the neighborhood that are comparable to the one in which you’re interested.

Once you have the comps, you and your buyer broker can begin an ongoing discussion about what the comps mean and how they apply to various homes in which you’re interested.

Of course, if you’ve been prequalified or preapproved by a mortgage lender, or you’ve figured it out for yourself how much new debt you can manage, you already know your uppermost financial limit. That’s the number you can’t go beyond, unless interest rates change, or you earn more, win the lottery, or inherit a bundle.

The bad news is that what you can afford to spend has nothing to do with how much a seller is asking for his or her house. The seller wants the most money possible. You want to pay the least amount of money. The rest is subject to negotiation.

Once you figure out how much the house should sell for, you have to figure out what your opening offer should be. This is where you and your agent should have a heart-to-heart talk about local market conditions.

If you’re living in an area where homes are going for more than list price on the first day they’re listed, you’re in a hot market. If you want to get the house, you’ll have to move fast and probably offer at least list price, and possibly more than list.

If you’re living in an area where homes are sitting on the market for 15 to 30 days before selling, your opening offer might be 3 to 5 percent below the list price. You should expect the seller to counter your offer, and end up paying either list or a percentage point or two below list price.

If the homes in your neighborhood of choice have been on the market for months without moving, then you have more flexibility. You and your agent should examine the available comps and then try to figure out why the seller is selling the property. If there is a divorce pending, or a death in the family, or if the house is vacant because the family has already moved to another home, you should have much more flexibility in terms of the price you offer.

Once you’ve figured out the opening price, it’s time to fill out the rest of the offer.

Some sellers are more nervous about the closing date than the price. I learned this when I purchased the home I live in now. The seller wanted to sell but didn’t have a place to go. In exchange for delaying the closing, I was able to get a slightly better price.

Your offer will have a better chance of being accepted if you allow the seller to choose the closing date.

Next, look at the fixtures, appliances, and other items in the house. Make sure you write on your offer exactly what you’d like to be included. If you want to make an offer for furniture, like a patio set, you can include that in your offer as well (although there is no certainty you’ll get it).

Finally, be sure to include any contingencies you need, such as a professional home inspection, financing, or the attorney review. And, you’ll want to make sure you include a specific time when the offer expires, such as 24 to 48 hours. You don’t want to give the seller time to shop your offer to other prospective buyers.

Once your offer is written, it’s up to your agent to turn on the magic and do a great sales pitch to the seller’s agent.

If you want to stop time, just spend a few hours waiting to hear if your offer to purchase has been accepted, countered or rejected. Each hour will feel like a day, and the best thing you can do is submit your offer and go to the movies.

But keep your cell phone on vibrate, just in case your agent has to get in touch.

Feb. 25, 2005.