True visionaries often look like idiots for years. But when the time comes, they strike -- and reap gains while others wonder what hit them.

During most bull markets, there comes a time when stocks start looking ridiculously overvalued. Consider, for instance, the most recent bull run, which ended last year:

  • Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) hit $700, and we still wanted more from the search provider and its peers.
  • Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) saw its shares vault over the $200 mark, trading at 40 times earnings and looking unstoppable.
  • Even shoe sensation Crocs managed to crack $70, making us wonder whether anyone would ever learn the timeless lessons that fad-following investors in stocks like Krispy Kreme and Boston Chicken learned the hard way.

Yet it takes courage to wait on the sidelines, hoping that an irrational market will finally come to its senses. It takes patience to pass up chances to invest in companies you believe will do well over the long haul, simply because they happen to be overpriced. It takes discipline to watch your friends talk up their big scores in the stock market while you silently wait for the big crash you know has to come eventually.

Take heart, patient investors. Your time is now.

Come 'n' get it
The bear market that took stocks by storm over the past year has pushed stocks to levels they haven't seen in years. Even when you use the S&P 500's lows of Oct. 9, 2002, as a comparison point, you can still find plenty of stocks selling at even lower prices than they fetched back then.

Consider, for instance, these well-known names:

Stock

Price On Oct. 9, 2002

Current Price

Pfizer (NYSE:PFE)

$23.48

$16.47

Dell (NASDAQ:DELL)

$25.00

$11.86

Motorola

$6.89

$4.15

Harley-Davidson

$42.84

$16.72

MGM Mirage (NYSE:MGM)

$15.84

$11.08

Source: Yahoo! Finance. 2002 price adjusted for splits and dividends. Current price as of Dec. 9, 2008.

In case you don't remember, the mood back in 2002 was pretty dour. Yet even if you missed out on these stocks back then -- even if you sat on the sidelines for more than six years, watching many of them vault skyward -- you now have a chance to get in even more cheaply.

But wait, you're saying. Now that I've waited this long for a bargain, why shouldn't I stay on the sidelines just a little longer and maybe get even better prices?

When you've won, it's easy to get greedy. But don't lose sight of why you waited in the first place.

Curbing your greed
It's impossible to predict just how low stocks will go in a bear market. Just as bull markets push valuations up to irrational extremes, the gloomy mood that accompanies big market drops feeds on itself, pulling share prices lower and lower. That's why many investors look for a capitulation event, in which downward pressures bring stocks tumbling one final time before a recovery begins.

But it's hard to spot the bottom. For instance, did you buy shares three weeks ago? The S&P is up 20% since then. That may prove not to be the bottom. But are you sure?

Even the best investors don't try to pick bottoms. Super-investor Warren Buffett has taken plenty of criticism for investing in Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) and General Electric (NYSE:GE) when their stocks were much higher. But even though he didn't get the bottom-dollar price, he did make the investment. And in the long run, that's something he'll have that many of his naysayers may well not -- as they wait for a final dip that never comes.

So, if you're lucky enough to have cash on the sidelines, waiting for the perfect moment to invest, then now's your chance. It's payoff time -- your reward for your discipline and patience is here. But it won't stay forever; if you don't go ahead and buy those long-awaited stocks you've wanted for years, then today's bargains could be gone in an instant.

For more on how to capitalize on today's opportunities, read about:

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has learned to love risk. He owns shares of GE. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. Pfizer and Dell are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Crocs if a former pick of Motley Fool Hidden Gems Pay Dirt. The Fool owns shares of Pfizer. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy is ready to pay off for you.