We may not be out of the woods yet, but the sharp market decline has left some top-notch companies looking awfully cheap. While sensational headlines like "Is the Stock Market Doomed?", "Dow 6,000?", and (my personal favorite) "How to Survive the Great Depression of 2008-2009" give the impression that Armageddon is just around the corner, investing gurus like Ron Muhlenkamp, David Swensen, and Warren Buffett are seeing values in the market.

That kind of support is an encouraging sign, but frankly, you don't need to be a guru to recognize attractive stocks today -- the S&P 500 is offering dividend yields unseen since the early 1990s, and quality names like Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), American Express (NYSE:AXP), and Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) are trading at near-decade lows. No, none of these stocks is immune to recessionary pressures, and their shares could slip a little further, but right now sure looks like a good time to consider building positions in them for the long run.

Slow and steady
You could do worse than to invest in one of these stocks all at once. But given the market's volatility, a good price today could look even better a month from now, so buying patiently and deliberately on price dips will only improve your odds of making money in the long run.

A good rule of thumb is to buy your stocks in thirds -- for example, if you normally invest $1,500 in a stock all at once, divide that $1,500 by three and invest $500 at a time. This way, if shares fall further, you'll be able to capitalize on the better prices and preserve your capital in the meantime.

A stock to buy in thirds
Crude oil prices have plummeted from a high of $147.27 in July 2008 to just $39 today. This sharp volatility has placed extreme pressure on much of the oil industry, from conglomerates like ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) to refiners like Valero (NYSE:VLO). $39 a barrel for oil is well below the marginal cost of production (the price at which it becomes unprofitable for most companies to produce), so naturally there's less incentive for super-majors like Chevron (NYSE:CVX) and Exxon to invest in exploration and production.

Offshore drilling contractor Noble (NYSE:NE) hasn't escaped this reality. Shares remain more than 65% off their 52-week highs and trade at under 4 times next year's estimated earnings. But even though the oil industry remains in turmoil, Noble can boast a huge backlog of orders from some of the more well-capitalized major oil companies in the world. In addition to its solid backlog and consumer base, Noble's balance sheet is strong with a total debt to equity ratio of just 17% and $513 million in cash.

If oil prices remain in the $30-$40 range, it could be another tough year for all oil companies, but the ones that are most efficiently managed and financially strong will survive and eventually thrive when the economy recovers. Noble looks to be one of those companies and is trading at just 1.2 times book value today (the lowest level in a decade) so if you think oil prices will rise again (and you'd be crazy not to), this is a stock to consider buying in thirds.

Why thirds? As attractive as Noble looks at these prices today, it's so difficult to predict the short-term movements of oil markets that if oil prices stagnate or slip further, you may be able to pick up more shares closer to book value.

Foolish bottom line
As tough as it might be to revisit stocks after the losses we've sustained over the past year, now is precisely the time, with pessimism still the order of the day, to do just that. This doesn't mean you should plunge back in head-first, but rather you should approach this market with a disciplined strategy like buying in thirds so that you can adapt to rapid changes and better preserve your capital.

Buying in thirds is one strategy our Motley Fool Inside Value team advises to members. With so many solid companies trading at prices unseen in years, our team is finding tremendous opportunities in this market. Their investing philosophy is rooted in the traditional value approaches of Buffett and Benjamin Graham. Among the tenets are:

  1. Know how to estimate intrinsic value.
  2. Insist on a margin of safety.
  3. Have the patience to wait for the right price.
  4. Check your emotions at the door.
  5. Know when to sell.

If you'd like to learn more about the companies they're recommending today -- including Microsoft and American Express -- a free 30-day trial to the service is yours. Simply click here to get started.

Todd Wenning wonders if Motown Philly will ever be back again. He does not own shares of any company mentioned. American Express and Microsoft are Inside Value recommendations. The Fool owns shares of American Express. The Fool's disclosure policy is the noblest of all disclosure policies.