The worst housing slowdown since the 1982 recession has been a sobering if not humbling experience for thousands of unhappy home builders and forlorn real estate agents in many parts of the country.

To say that the bottom has fallen out of the market would be an exaggeration, especially in some of the smaller, less trendy cities in the South and Midwest.But the housing market has gone so flat in previously "hot" cities like Boston that elegant homes in good communities are attracting few buyers, even after prices are cut.

For a while, it looked as though California, with its inflated housing prices, would dodge the bullet, but times are tough there, too.

"I am not an optimist about the California market. I think it's hit the skids," says Larry Kimbell, a former UCLA business forecaster who now works for the WEFA Group in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

In some cities, real estate firms are merging and agents are trying unusual tactics to make friends, sell houses and drum up listings. One agent in suburban Washington delivered a Halloween pumpkin to every home in his neighborhood.

"Some of us are remodeling our homes to fill in the time," my favorite real estate agent told me. "It can't last forever. Things will get better someday."

For now, though, the housing market is the weakest link in a shaky economy that needs all the help it can get. Consumer confidence, wracked by bad news about bank failures, budget deficits and a possible war in the Middle East, has taken a dive.

"You go to a cocktail party," says Donald Straszheim, chief economist for Merrill Lynch, "and all you hear about is how many houses are on the market that aren't selling."

Barbara Alexander, a construction finance expert with Salomon Brothers, says bank lending to builders has just about dried up. "It's going to get worse before it gets better," she predicts.

There's no mystery here. Banks have been burned so badly in real estate they won't make new loans, even to good customers.

The decline in new-apartment construction is "about as bad as we've ever seen," according to David Seiders, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders.

Probably the gloomiest of the housing economists is consultant Michael Sumichrast. "Most real estate indicators are down to the level of the last recession," he says.