From the lakes of Minnesota to the Arizona desert to the green hills of West Virginia — not to mention all of Florida — attractive properties are going begging.

If you dream of owning a vacation home and your finances are in good shape, this could be the time to make your move. In 2007, vacation-home sales actually plummeted by more than 30 percent, to 740,000 from a record million-plus in 2006.

Lenders and others in the industry say buyers are shying away for several reasons. With the overall slump in housing — and with lenders tightening up on home-equity credit — buyers can no longer count on tapping the equity in their primary residence to buy a second home. Meanwhile, flippers and short-term investors have all but disappeared from the second-home market.

That gives you leverage to negotiate, especially if you can take advantage of the quirks in the market for vacation homes. Many of these houses are up for sale because family members scatter, or because empty-nesters or widowed owners move away. Long-term owners generally aren't faced with the need to pay off a mortgage, but they can still lose patience if the property sits on the market for a year or more.

When it comes to new construction, builders whose spec homes sit vacant have to get their money out or lose their investment to the bank. They may be willing to "donate" a well or build a driveway, saving you thousands of dollars.

Before you buy, ask yourself the following four questions:

• How accessible is the property? Gas prices dim the appeal of a place that's hundreds of miles away. You can usually hop a cheap flight to Florida, but that's not necessarily true of Corpus Christi, Texas, or Durango, Colo.

• Is the community well-planned? In rural areas, a beautiful new cabin may adjoin a cluster of rusting trailers.

• Is the house in good shape? New construction is fine, but an older place or summer home is likely to be the victim of deferred maintenance and premature wear. Instead of asking for a price concession, you may be better off asking the seller to hire a carpenter and a painter.

• Will you feel at home? Start your search at Web sites such as Escapehomes.com and Lakeplace.com. But nothing beats a visit to see if the locale offers what you're looking for.


Jeffrey R. Kosnett is a senior editor and Jessica L. Anderson is a staff writer at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to [email protected]