Good times. Really.

Despite the gloomy housing news, first-time buyers are scoring incredible deals. Here’s how.

You’ve read the headlines, heard the radio broadcasts and seen the nightly news. The housing bubble burst. Sub-prime mortgages went kablooey. New home building is frozen, existing home sales are stagnant. And many experts predict it’ll get worse— perhaps much, much worse—before it gets better.

So, naturally, you’d assume real-estate brokers in Sacramento—which is being portrayed as Foreclosure Flats and ground zero for the nation’s mortgage meltdown—are downbeat.

You’d assume incorrectly.

“This is definitely a fantastic time to buy a home. I don’t think many people realize what an exciting time this is, and how many good opportunities there are,” says Brian McMartin, owner of and real-estate agent with McMartin Realty.

“We have reached a point where it is actually affordable to own a home again,” he added, “and it is so crucial that those hoping to own a home take advantage of it.”

Indeed, McMartin contends this is especially a good time for first-time buyers who were priced out of the market during housing-boom years.

About six years ago, Sacramentans witnessed home prices increase to the point that some worried home ownership was an impossible dream. Now, prices have dropped to levels that make many home buyers able to achieve what they once considered out of reach.

Consider Stephen Potenza, 30, who had been paying rent in the Sacramento area for six years after losing his first home amid the dot-com crash. Potenza had been following the housing market, waiting for the perfect time to purchase a home. However, around 2004–05, he began to worry that he’d forever be priced out of the market.

“One of my requirements was that I wanted a mortgage that was equal to or less than what the house could rent for. That way, if I lost my job again, I wouldn’t be forced to sell this time around. At the height of the bubble, this would have been very difficult to do using a conventional loan without a substantial down payment.”

Potenza discovered amazing deals when the foreclosure crisis rolled around.

“I started to see home prices drop below $200,000 and down into the 2000–2001 price levels,” he said. “I was so excited that I might actually be able to own a home and not have it be a financial stress or burden.”

Potenza purchased a three-bedroom, two-bath house about a mile away from the apartment he previously rented—and his mortgage payment is about $100 less than his former monthly rent.

It is understandable that potential buyers in the same financial shape as Potenza might be spooked to even give the market a look. Negativenews about the current housing market is disheartening and constant.

What isn’t being reported much, the experts agree, is the positive side of foreclosures, and how buyers can benefit from them. Thousands of homes in the Sacramento area have been foreclosed, which means that there are thousands of homes on the market that need to be sold. The bank does not want to be stuck with that property; they want cash, so banks are going to work with buyers to get those properties sold. This means that significant discounts and great deals are widely available; you just have to know what your options are and where to look.

About 60 percent of today’s home sales are foreclosures, and for good reason. There is more of a selection now than ever. When more properties hit the market, prices take a dive to keep up with the rapidly increasing inventory. According to a survey done by CSUS, the median price of homes dropped 30.9 percent in March, compared to the same time last year, and the inventory of homes in the area has reached approximately 8,861.

But here’s an aspect of that CSUS survey you may have missed: 68 percent of Sacramento residents believe that 2008 is the right time to buy.

You don’t have to convince McMartin. He says he has seen homes go for as much as 50 percent below their highest value. Because of this, he says, he has been able to get many people into homes for about the same monthly mortgage that they’d be paying for rent.

McMartin deals almost entirely with bank-owned properties now, because that’s where the highest demand is. And he’s noticing that today’s buyers are savvy enough to know that is where to seek the deals.

Still, he admitted to noticing hesitation among some buyers.

“A lot of people are afraid to buy because they are not sure if they should wait and see if the prices go down even more,” McMartin said. “But the market is so unpredictable, and the deals are so great right now.”

Naturally, he would direct buyers to a licensed, dedicated real-estate agent—like Brian McMartin!—who is knowledgeable about this particular housing market and the intricacies of dealing with foreclosed homes.

For instance, homes are generally sold “as is,” and buyers just fork over the negotiated closing price and get on with paying for desperately needed repairs out of their own pockets.

However, a good real-estate agent should be aware of existing programs and funding available to repair and refresh homes. Foreclosed homes in particular may need extra repairs and maintenance. A real-estate agent would thereby stress the need for a thorough home inspection.

Potenza’s new home was in need of some repairs, but he allowed his agent to use this to his advantage when negotiating with the bank for a purchase price.

Of course, potential buyers are not going to realize this unless they get out there and explore the market—preferably with a qualified agent serving as a guide.

“It is the perfect time for first-time homebuyers to purchase a home, because not only is the rate down, but the value is as well,” McMartin said. “And it’s important to know your options.”

While news accounts portray higher-priced home values and sales holding steady for the most part, “You would be surprised at the great deals and variety of homes available in our area under the $200,000 mark,” McMartin said. “I have people all of the time looking for a certain home, yet when they realize that they can get a lot more for their buck because of the market, their options broaden tremendously. It’s a very exciting thing.”

Count 30-year-old Moises Gomez as being among the excited new home buyers. Gomez, who serves in the Air Force, had been a renter for more than two years before the foreclosure crisis made it possible for him to jump into the home-buying market.

“I never thought that I would be able to own a home,” he said. “I was paying $600 rent with a roommate, where I had a one bedroom and one bathroom. Now, I’m paying a $1,200-a-month mortgage for a three-bedroom home that I will have all to myself. … It’s pretty nice.”

His advice to others considering buying a home?

“Don’t be afraid to buy, because who knows if you will ever get an opportunity like this again? I did it, and I feel great because I love my new home, and I love the deal I got.”