There aren't as many Realtors in Utah as there used to be - down from about 4,700 in the early '80s to 3,700 today - but those still on the job generally are upbeat about their (and, conversely, the state's) future.

The Utah Association of Realtors is gearing up for National Home Week next week and UAR President Gary R. Herbert surveyed the 13 real estate boards across the state to see if their members are all seeing the "light at the end of the tunnel" that has been rumored for the industry.With the exception of Uintah County, hardest hit because of the loss of jobs following the collapse in oil prices a few years ago, Realtors expect this year to be at least as good as last, said Herbert.

"Overall, they are cautiously optimistic, and Realtors are a pretty good barometer for the economy. We're the first to get hurt when (interest) rates go up and the last to recover."

As if Realtors didn't have enough worries, the specter of homeowners losing tax deductibility for mortgage interest - one of the major incentives for homeownership - refuses to die despite assurances from Congress and the president that the deduction remains sacrosanct.

Herbert, president of brokerage Herbert & Associates Inc., Orem, knows only too well that the tax deduction is a juicy target for "revenue enhancers" who would love to raise taxes without actually raising taxes - the obvious result of eliminating the deduction.

But after a recent week in Washington D.C. conferring with the Utah congressional delegation and others, Herbert feels the deduction is safe, at least for now.

"There are pressures to reduce the deficit and President Bush is looking for revenue enhancement from many areas, that's why they keep looking at the deduction," he said. "But a lot of people own houses and the National Association of Realtors (800,000 members, largest trade group in the U.S.) are a strong lobby. I don't see it happening, not this year anyway."

But while the loss of the mortgage tax deduction may be safe, Herbert said certain provisions in the 1986 tax code revision have proved to be major disincentives for real estate investment.

"We are working to get that reformed," said Herbert, "because, for a variety of technical reasons, it has caused people to take investment capital out of real estate and put it into stocks and bonds."

Realtors are also concerned, he said, that mortgage interest rates continue to run high in comparison to the rate of inflation - which, historically, rates tend to follow.

"It's becoming increasingly difficult for first-time buyers to get into a house," said Herbert. "Interest rates of 7 to 9 percent would be typical for the inflation rate we have (around 6 percent)." Instead, interest rates are 11 percent and higher.

Herbert believes the nation has to look at housing in the same way it views food and defense. It needs to be returned to its status as a major priority.

Despite high interest rates, Herbert contends young Utahns can still become homeowners.

"We don't have the problems other cities have. Most people who really want to get a house can do so. They may have to get a fixer-upper, it may be further out of town, and they may need family help for the down payment, but they can do it. As an industry, we are doing our part, lobbying for higher (loan to value) ratios and lower down payments."

Many would-be home sellers, of course, have had a difficult time in recent years. Herbert advises sellers to contact a real estate professional, get his or her advice, then follow it.

"I don't recommend you pull your own teeth, and I don't recommend you sell your own house. There are three reasons why houses don't sell: price, location and condition. That involves marketing and that's what a Realtor can give you."