NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Use any metaphor you want: the ticking clock, sands running through the hourglass or pages falling away from the calendar. The fact is, time is running out to claim the $8,000 first-time homebuyers tax credit.
Passed earlier this year as part of the economic stimulus package, the credit is good for up to $8,000, or 10% of the purchase price, and applies to people who have not owned a home in the previous three years. (There are some income restrictions.) The best part: Unlike a similar program from 2008, the credit does not have to be repaid.
The bad part: It ends on Dec. 1.
Because it usually takes around 90 days to close on a house after a contract is signed, buyers have very little time left to act. As of Thurs., Aug. 27, there were only 96 days left before the credit ends.
"Buyers have to get a home under contract very, very soon," said Tom Kunz, CEO of Century 21. "They probably should get out looking."
What they will find may surprise them: Many of the prime properties have already been snapped up. Home sales have been on the upswing, and inventories are so depleted in hot markets that first-time buyers are struggling to find homes in their price range.
In Whittier, Calif., for example, there are few repossessed homes for sale. Those are easy to buy because there isn't a lot of red tape and the bank wants to get rid of them as quickly as possible. Instead, most of the properties are short sales, where the sellers have to convince their lender to let them sell the house for less than they owe.
"That's why there's such a sense of urgency now," said Irma Tapper, a Century 21 real estate agent in Whittier. "The banks have to approve short sales, and they're taking three to six months to do that."
That means a first timer putting a bid on a short-sale might not get an answer form the bank until well after the Dec. 1 deadline for the tax credit. So when an actual repossession listing hits the markets, it creates a feeding frenzy.
Chuck Whitehead, who runs the Coldwell Banker agency in Temecula, Calif., said one recent listing hit the market on a Friday and by Monday there were 57 bids.
The National Association of Realtors attributes much of this activity to the first-time buyer tax credit. It estimates that 1.8 million buyers will file for the credit, and 350,000 of them wouldn't have been able to buy without it.
"It makes a big difference because most of these clients are in a lower price range," said Michelle Edmunds, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Temecula, Calf., who has closed sales for six first-time buyers. "The houses they buy need work and normally they wouldn't want to move in because of the [less than perfect] conditions the homes are in."
That is true for Wesley Forsythe. This June, the 30-year-old computer consultant and his girlfriend bought a row house in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. Since he paid just $80,000 for the three-bedroom, two-bath place, the credit acted like a 10% discount.
"It allowed us to expand out price range and plan additional renovations," he said. "My mortgage is several hundred dollars less than what my new rent would have been."
Forsythe applied for the credit immediately after closing, filing an amended 2008 tax return. The IRS cut him a check in less than seven weeks. He's spending it now on new hardwood floors, repainting most of the interior and renovating a bathroom. He's stretching the cash by doing much of the work himself.
Of course, analysts worry that this frenzy will dry up once the tax credit expires. They argue that without the incentive, much of the pressure on homebuyers to act quickly will vanish, and the nascent housing recovery could slump.
In many ways the tax credit is similar to the Cash for Clunkers program that ended this week. Already, auto dealers are anticipating that car sales will evaporate after accelerating during the program.
"It's just like Cash for Clunkers," said Robert Dye, a senior economist for PNC Financial Services Group. "It runs the risk of a let-down as the program runs its course."
Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who is a former real estate broker, is pushing legislation to extend the tax credit through next year, increase it to $15,000, include non-first-time homebuyers, and remove income restrictions.
The effort has drawn strong industry support.
"We need to stimulate the move-up buyer," said Century 21's Kunz, "so it works its way up the pricing food chain. That's what we need to get inventory moving again."