Experts say housing counselors can help bridge the gap for many in today’s challenging market. But would-be buyers often don’t get what they need when they need it.

As rising prices and tight inventory continue to make it challenging to purchase a home, expanding access to counseling and other forms of education could help many prospective buyers make the leap to homeownership, according to housing industry leaders who spoke at a panel session hosted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C., Thursday afternoon.

According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, this type of access can make a big difference in keeping transaction on schedule.

“In our focus groups of home buyers who went through the counseling process, one of the things that comes out strongly for them is the reduction in stress in navigating the home purchase process,” says Jon Spader, senior research associate at the center. “Having connected with a counselor, [they know] that if … a flag goes up, they have someone that they can call and ask, ‘Is this something I should be concerned about?’”

But despite the benefits of working with a counselor before purchasing a home, many people either don’t know housing counseling is available or find out too late, says Christie Peale, executive director of the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, a New York–based nonprofit organization that helps people find affordable homes.

“We often hear that folks don’t hear about [housing counseling] until they’re about to go to closing,” says Peale. “You’ve got your contract signed, the appraisal’s done, you have the house inspected, and then somebody says you need to go to a six-hour housing course. That’s not the way we really want to integrate housing counseling into the full life of the loan and the full loan-origination process.”

Lawrence Yun, senior vice president and chief economist of the National Association of REALTORS®, says that, for some buyers, having someone to help them find out about financing and other options they might otherwise have been unaware of can mean the difference between getting into homeownership and remaining a renter.

“Many people have a misunderstanding about what they can access, and therefore they don’t even try,” Yun says, noting that would-be buyers can benefit greatly from learning about loan programs that require less cash up front. “Sometimes there is a natural, heavy, human inertia of doing the same thing, so many renters are continuing to rent, and they are saying, ‘Well, certainly I don’t have a 20 percent down payment.’”

Secretary Carson offers introductory remarks Thursday afternoon at a HUD-sponsored forum on homeownership in Washington, D.C.

The panel was part of a HUD forum called “A New Era of Homeownership,” presented as part of their celebration of June as National Homeownership Month. Speaking at the start of the event, HUD Secretary Ben Carson indicated that his approach to ensuring that Americans have access to homeownership depends as much on the private sector as it does on government programs and oversight.

“We need ethical behavior and risk within smart boundaries and best practices, personally and financially. We must follow those practices that are fair, responsible, transparent, and prudent,” Carson says. “The bankers, lenders, and investors are not playing with Monopoly money. They’re playing with the hard-earned money of our citizens, and they’ve been entrusted to safeguard that money.”

Peale says that buying a home is by definition a public-private partnership because of the many roles the government plays in the real estate industry. She points out that one of those roles is helping match people with certified housing counselors.

Access to a counselor after buying a home can also pay dividends. For example, Spader says that people who have had housing counseling are more likely to reach out to a lender for help if they are having trouble paying their mortgage.

“Housing counseling is a very cost-effective way to invest in long-term housing outcomes,” says Peale.