Image: Real estate sign indicating sold house © Ryan McVay, Digital Vision, Getty Images

The housing market was merely confusing a year ago. Now it's downright maddening. Prices are low. In some cities they're rising. Which makes this a great time to buy. Potentially.

"Heck, yes," says Rick Borges, the president-elect of the Appraisal Institute. "You can't get any lower rates or any lower prices. The combination is unbelievable." Experts expect rates to remain low at least through 2013.

But if this is a great time to buy a home, it's not an easy time. From the trenches come tales of hope, frustration, waiting and lost opportunities.

Wild ride

It can be a wild ride. Rachel Wolfinbarger, 24, recently bought a home in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., with her boyfriend. Four or five of their friends in their 20s also purchased homes in the past 12 months. She found the experience confusing but ultimately worthwhile.

"When we first started looking, I kept hearing that it was a 'buyers' market.' I thought that meant the buyer gets the upper hand. But our agent explained that, because it's a buyers' market, there are a lot of buyers," Wolfinbarger says.

While in recent years, sellers have outnumbered buyers, low interest rates and attractive prices have begun luring a growing number of potential homebuyers to test the market.

They initially looked at condos, then realized they could own a house. "We had good credit, we had a lot saved, and if you are just renting, you are never going to see that money again," she reasoned. They toured about 20 properties to get a good idea of what was available.

One home they loved seemed within their budget. But it needed costly work. When they added in the other expenses -- not just mortgage principal and interest payments but also taxes, private mortgage insurance, homeowners association dues and special assessments -- they were crushed to realize it was beyond their price range.

"That was an eye-opener," Wolfinbarger says.

The next home they liked was a "short sale." That's when the seller's lender agrees to take a loss and let the home sell for less than the seller owes. Since a bank's bureaucracy has to approve the sale price, these can be drawn-out, complex transactions.

Daren Blomquist, the vice president at RealtyTrac, a foreclosure information company, says 12% of all homes sold in the first quarter this year were in "pre-foreclosure," meaning that the foreclosure process had begun but was not complete. Most of those were short sales. An additional 14% of properties sold had been repossessed and were bank-owned.

Wolfinbarger and her boyfriend did the math on the house they liked. The price seemed right. But another buyer beat them to this bargain.

Often, homebuyers find they're competing with investors who have cash to spend, which is a big enticement to sellers. Cash sales make up about a third of transactions today, says the National Association of Realtors.

Finally, the couple hit upon a strategy that worked: shopping at a lower initial price point, so they could offer more if necessary. They found another attractive short sale, an older home in a good neighborhood with no homeowners' fees. It had been remodeled and looked new. The price was low for the area, $239,900.

But there was a huge downside: They couldn't tour the inside of the house.

It's not uncommon these days to find distressed properties for sale "subject to interior inspection," says Los Angeles real estate agent Chantay Bridges. A seller may be unable to get inside for a variety of reasons -- a hostile tenant, for example, who won't show the home and who must be evicted after the sale.

"But you have a loophole to get out of the contract if you do view it or have it inspected and decide 'this is not the one for me,'" Bridges points out.

Wolfinbarger and her boyfriend based their decision on the home's exterior appearance, square footage, legal description, location and the cost of surrounding homes. They decided to take a chance.

They offered the seller $250,000. Another buyer jumped in and matched it. They raised their offer by $5,000.

"And we got it!" Wolfinbarger says, still exultant. "Fortunately, what we saw inside was better than what we saw in the pictures."