Builders are jumping through hoops to make it easier for prospects to buy a new home. Some are paying closing costs of up to $5,000. Some have used help from government programs. In January, sales of new homes were up 28.9 percent from a year earlier. One couple said when they moved to another city, they first thought they would buy an existing home. They found that few acceptable homes were on the market, and those that were available were snapped up by investors who were willing to pay more than the asking price. Though their credit score wasn't great because of a 2008 bankruptcy, the builder helped them be approved for a home that cost more than they wanted to pay. But it was a wonderful, spacious home. What caused the shortage? Though every community in the United States is different from others, there are three factors responsible for the shortage of existing homes for sale. First, some homeowners are waiting for home prices to rise further. Last year, home sales prices rose an average of about 8 percent from the year earlier. If sellers can wait three or four years, their asking price could be higher. But during that time, their needs or wants in a home will not be met. Second, homeowners who bought homes at 2006 prices have to build more equity before listing them. Third, some bank-owned homes are yet on the market. Just as homeowners are waiting for prices to rise, so are some banks. The National Association of Realtors reports that the number of existing homes for sale fell to 1.74 million in January, the lowest number since the year 2000. Though fewer homes are for sale, those that are will come at bargain prices. It pays to ask your real estate agent to tip you off about a great home that's just come on the market. That home will go fast. Be prepared with a preapproval amount from a lender so you can make a qualified bid.