Do the math and establish your purchasing power. Before you start cruising the neighborhood for open houses, you need to know which driveways you can afford to pull into. Meet with a lender who will help you determine which type of financing (FHA, fixed rate, adjustable, etc.) will work best for you and how much you qualify for with each type. Also, getting pre-approved can put you in a much stronger negotiating position because it shows the seller that you are a committed buyer, financially capable of buying the property and more likely to close on it.
Find the right agent. Your real estate agent will be your partner in your search, so it's important to gain confidence in him or her by doing your research. You should first understand the difference in the terms real estate agent and Realtor®. Every agent has earned a real estate license through the state, but a Realtor has additional certification from the National Association of Realtors. Next, look for a strong buyer's agent with experience and commitment, who will look out for your best interests and work with your schedule. Ask friends and family for recommendations of agents they had success with, and don't be afraid to interview more than one agent to compare experience before making your decision.
Make a timeline. Sit down with a calendar and set up your goals for the months leading up to your potential move date. Plan on getting pre-approved for a loan and looking for an agent three to four months in advance. The next two or three months will be spent looking for a house and the details of your actual move will be made in the few weeks before moving day. By setting up a timeline for yourself, you are more likely to stay organized, on task and goal oriented.
Start surfing. One of the most important tools you'll need for your house hunt can be found right in your own home or office-the Internet. Nearly every home on the market is listed somewhere on the Internet because real estate agents know the majority of people turn to the Web first when looking for a new home. And why not? With just a few clicks of a mouse, buyers can see pictures, take virtual tours and map out locations for homes that contain features they specifically search for. Start looking on websites like Realtor.com, MLS.com and Zillow.com for homes that fit your particular criteria. You can register for e-mail alerts to have homes sent to you and your agent so he/she can investigate further.
Location, location, location. One can make a list of pros and cons for nearly every home in every neighborhood. That's why it's important to narrow your search before you start touring every house in town. Decide what neighborhoods work best for you and your family. Check out school districts, shopping and dining, public transportation, recreational areas and crime statistics. List your priorities and prepare to compromise. The dream home you have pictured in your mind might not exist in reality-or at least not in your neighborhood or price range. There are often compromises involved in deciding on a property. So, you may have to sacrifice that extra large bathtub or redwood deck in order to get the home located near your child's school that has the four bedrooms you require. Make a list of the features you are looking for in a house and rate them on a scale of one to five, with five being a feature you can't live without. Then, bring your list with you as you tour homes to keep score.
Would you like French doors with that? Once you've found a home you like, consider the costs of upgrades, repairs or remodels and factor those in to your short or long term budgets. Remember that any upgrades you make, will likely add value to your new home. So it may be worth the extra investment up front, if you are planning on selling your home in the foreseeable future.
*The new home buyer tax credit bill calls for an incentive for existing homeowners who have owned their current homes at least five years, making them eligible for tax credits of up to $6,500 when they purchase a new home. First time homebuyers - or anyone who hasn't owned a home in the last three years - would still get up to $8,000. To qualify, buyers in both groups have to sign a purchase agreement by April 30, 2010 and close by June 30.