The desire to own a home of one's own has been a part of human nature ever since that fateful moment, millions of years ago, when our earliest ancestors climbed down out of their tree and moved into their very first cave. It was a major moment in history, and its glory was dimmed only slightly by the fact that their furniture did not arrive for another 250,000 years.Yes, moving into a new home is one of life's great adventures, constantly posing new and exciting challenges.

One of the things you'll need to decide is what style of house you're looking for. The major styles of houses in the United States are:

- OLDER HOUSES with many quaint and charming architectural features, such as that during certain phases of the moon the toilets flush up.

- NEWER HOUSES built by large developers using modern cost-cutting efficiency measures such as hiring semi-skilled derelict felon gypsy workpersons who are prone to forgetting to install key architectural elements such as windows and those large pieces of wood, "rafters" I believe they are called, that hold up the roof.

- REALLY NICE, WELL-BUILT, WELL-LOCATED, AFFORDABLE HOUSES that are not for sale.

Another very important factor is neighborhood. Ask any real estate broker to name the three most important factors in buying a property, and he'll say: "Location, location, location." Now ask him to name the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and he'll say: "Location, location, location." This tells us that we should not necessarily be paying a whole lot of attention to real estate brokers.

If you have school-age children, by far the must important factor in selecting a neighborhood is, of course, the proximity of the nearest Toys Backwards "R" Us store. You will be spending a great deal of your time and disposable income there, because from kindergarten through about sixth grade, the average child attends approximately 36,500 birthday parties. Your child will go through a period, usually around first grade, when his classmates will have as many as six birthdays apiece per year, meaning you'll spend virtually all of your Saturdays racing to Toys Backwards "R" Us, then racing off to the party, leaving a trail of flattened pedestrians because you are wrapping the present as you drive. But all the hassle is worth it when you see the look on the birthday child's face when he or she rips open the present and remarks with delight: "Hey! I already got this!"

Once you have selected several potential neighborhoods, you should drive around and evaluate them, using this convenient neighborhood checklist:

NOTE WHAT THE RESIDENTS DO WITH CARS THAT NO LONGER FUNCTION

- Good Neighborhood: They get rid of them.

- Bad Neighborhood: They keep them all forever, arranged tastefully on their lawns, as if expecting the Car Fairy to come one night and whisk all the cars away and leave everybody a nice shiny quarter.

NOTE WHAT KIND OF NAMES THE LOCAL STREETS HAVE

- Good: "Jasmine View Court Terrace"

- Bad: "Interstate 95"

NOTE WHAT KIND OF BUSINESSES ARE NOW OPERATING IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

- Good: "Arthur A. Wutherington IV, Investment Banker"

- Bad: "Earl's All-Night Nude Revue & Motorcycle Repair"

NOTE WHAT KIND OF BUMPER STICKERS THE NEIGHBORHOOD CARS HAVE

- Good: "SCHOOL'S OPEN! DRIVE CAREFULLY!"

- Bad: "I (heart) MY PIT BULL"

NOTE WHAT THE NEIGHBORHOOD YOUTHS ARE DOING

- Good: Selling lemonade.

- Bad: Selling you your rear wheels back.

NOTE THE TYPES OF NEIGHBORHOOD SOCIAL ACTIVITIES

- Good: Barbecues.

- Bad: Cockfights.

It is possible to buy or sell a home without a broker, but most people prefer to use a broker, because of the many advantages, such as:

1. If you have a real estate broker, you have an excuse to fend off the other brokers, who will otherwise follow you around and hurl rocks through your window with notes taped to them explaining the many advantages of using a broker.

2. Brokers always have nicer cars than you do. You want to select the broker with the largest possible car, because you're going to spend far more time in this car than in whatever home you ultimately buy.

The best place to obtain a broker is at a junior high school, where you'll find that virtually all the teachers obtained real estate licenses once they realized what a tragic mistake they had made, selecting a profession that requires them to spend entire days confined in small rooms with adolescent children. Often it is sufficient to just drive by the school and beep your horn; within seconds, brokers will come swarming out of doors and windows, eager to abandon their lesson plans on the Three Major Bones of the Inner Ear so they can help you find a home.

OK. Now we have reached the most exciting part, the very essence of home-buying: actually going inside specific houses so we can examine them and fail to notice major defects.

One important warning before you get started: You want to be on the alert for the Helpful Seller. This is the kind of seller who, the instant you enter his home, leaps out and attaches himself to you, like an intestinal parasite, only worse, because intestinal parasites, for all their flaws, do not feel a great need to point out every single one of their home's numerous features, whereas the Helpful Seller does.

"This is the hall bathroom," he'll say, showing you a bathroom in a hall. Then he'll watch you very closely, trying to gauge your reaction to this bathroom, and you'll feel obligated to compliment him on it.

"Very nice!" you'll say.

"This toilet seat was installed quite recently," he'll say.

"Huh!" you'll say.

"It's padded," he'll say.

"Bang," you'll say, shooting him in the forehead with your small-caliber revolver.

This is why many real estate brokers these days use tranquilizer darts to subdue hyperactive sellers right in the foyer, before they have a chance to become too Helpful.

HOW MANY HOUSES SHOULD YOU LOOK AT?

Most experts recommend that, for maximum effectiveness, you should look at 45 or even 50 houses per day. Experienced home shoppers often reach the point where they can leap out of the real estate broker's car, look at a house, and get back into the car before it reaches a complete stop.

You'll begin to narrow your list down to the three or four dozen houses that you are truly interested in. These are the ones you should go back and inspect in a thorough manner. Your Home Inspection Checklist should include:

- HEATING AND COOLING

Heating and cooling should be supplied by one or more large filthy objects squatting in a basement or closet. You should inspect these objects from a safe distance; you should also find out what the total annual heating and cooling costs will be, using the following formula:

1. Ask the person selling the house how much the total annual heating and cooling cost will be.

2. To determine the actual cost, multiply the amount this person gives you by the weight, in pounds, of the devices supplying the heating and cooling.

- THE PLUMBING

Forget about the plumbing. It will work perfectly. It always does, when you inspect it, because plumbing is one of the most intelligent life forms on the planet, and it would never be so foolish as to tip its hand to you. It will wait until after you have bought the house. Then it will make its move. Late some night, you'll hear strange gurglings and sloshings in your pipes; this will be the sound of your toilets communicating with each other, making their plans:

FIRST TOILET: It's on. Tomorrow is New Year's Day, they have houseguests, it's four degrees below zero outside and their plumber is in Switzerland. We break tonight.

SECOND TOILET: Ha ha! I'll tell the hot water heater.

- INSECTS

Make no mistake about it: There will be insects in the house.

Fortunately, most insects pose no threat to homeowners. All they want is to eat your food and have babies in your sock drawer and maybe crawl up your nostril while you're sleeping. In exchange for this, many of them gladly perform useful household services, such as pooping on your toothbrush.

The exception, of course, is termites, which are small socialist insects that eat houses. (We don't know what they ate before houses were invented. We think maybe garages.) Termites live in large colonies ruled by a lady termite with an enormous butt, called the Queen, who governs over a strict termite hierarchy. They can eat your prospective house, so it is very important that you inspect carefully for the Two Telltale Signs of Termite Infestation, which are:

1. Termites walking around with pieces of your prospective house in their mouths.

2. No sign whatsoever of termites, because they are hiding.

If all the other items on your checklist check out to your satisfaction, it's time to make the standard Insulting Opening Offer on the house. (But that's a whole other story.) And if all goes well at last you're a homeowner. Now you can immerse yourself in the many rewarding and traditional activities that new homeowners engage in, such as trying to figure out how to make the mortgage payment and, simultaneously, not starve to death.

(NEXT: Good Housekeeping, or Learning to Live with Filth)

From the forthcoming book HOMES AND OTHER BLACK HOLES by Dave Barry. Copyright 1988 by Dave Barry. Illustrations copyright 1988 by Jeff MacNelly. Reprinted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.