There is considerable evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, that fewer people in the region are listing their homes for sale.

Several real estate agents with whom I regularly connect tell me that frequently, by the time they meet with a sales prospect - even if only 24 hours has passed since the homeowner requested a meeting - the person has decided not to list the house.

As a result, the number of listings in the eight-county metropolitan area is down 6.3 percent over the same period last year, according to Prudential Fox & Roach's HomExpert Market Report, which is based on third-quarter data from Trend multiple-listing service. And houses that are being listed take longer to sell than last year - 16.7 percent longer, or 11 days. The reasons are many, from tight credit to houses being priced incorrectly.

Economists not employed by the housing industry - and whose opinions, therefore, are not subject to questions of bias - are predicting that the downturn will last until mid-2009, depending on the length and depth of the current recession.

One thing that could jump-start the housing market is looser credit - not as loose as two years ago, which is how we got into this terrible mess in the first place, but a situation that doesn't require borrowers to offer their firstborn as collateral, either.

One step in the right direction was the decision by the Federal Reserve last month to purchase $600 billion in mortgage-backed securities.

The Fed's action accomplished two things: It offered a guarantee to investors that the government fully backed the value of those mortgages; and, more important for prospective home buyers, it sent fixed rates closer to where they really should be - 5 percent or lower.

The only reason fixed rates are higher is to entice investors into buying mortgage-backed securities with the promise of higher yields to protect their money, said Philadelphia mortgage broker Fred Glick. With the government guaranteeing their investments, the wide yield spread narrows considerably.

"I think this decline in mortgage rates will have more staying power," said Moody's Economy.com chief economist Mark Zandi. "The Fed is now explicitly committed to making sure that mortgage spreads stay low by buying Fannie [Mae] and Freddie [Mac] debt and the mortgage securities they guarantee."

Zandi predicts that the fixed rate should soon be near 5 percent.

So far, only refinancing has benefited from the Fed action, and by clients who have asked to be informed when rates dropped, said Jim Goldstein, branch manager of Gateway Funding, in Horsham.

Some people are no longer able to refinance because the value of their home has declined, and "they now owe more than 80 percent and either have to pay down the loan or obtain private mortgage insurance," said Jerome Scarpello of Leo Mortgage in Ambler.

But falling prices and lower rates are perfect for buyers with secure jobs and good credit, Scarpello said, and, "if you're smart, you can get a bargain."

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens is the author of "Remodeling On the Money" (Kaplan Publishing). His home-improvement columns appear Fridays in Home & Design. "On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.