OK, so you've decided to buy a house. You aren't sure what you want exactly, but think you will know it when you see it. There are some strong preferences, and a price range--actually two, one if you buy finished, and one if you need to do a lot of renovation. Where should you start?
1. Develop a good relationship with a real estate agent. Much of what comes onto the market now is spoken for ahead of time, if people know it is about to be listed. You need to have a professional ear to the ground, as well as your own.
2. Get prequalified. You may want a loan, even if you don't want a mortgage contingency. Be sure you are right about how much you can borrow.
3. Sign up for an automated search. This seems obvious, but don't wait until the weekend to look at everything at once. Check your results every day.
4. Be flexible about traveling to visit listings. Try to be available on relatively short notice, so that you will look at homes before they are gone. Even if the house isn't for you, you are developing a better sense of what you want.
5. Keep a running ranked list in your head. Every time you see a house, slot it into your ranked list. If it wouldn't make the top three, you may not even need to see it.
6. Don't get seduced by details. Don't ignore number of bedrooms, neighborhood, or price, just because it has a nice hot tub. Stick with what you need.
7. Have a mental budget for repairs. Know what certain things will cost, at least in ballpark terms. You don't want to have to put in contingencies, or run around getting quotes, if you could do that ahead of time.
8. Be prepared to act quickly. In this market, speed counts. Have your limits firmly in mind.
9. Don't play games. A couple of thousand here or there won't matter as much as the interest rate. Offer what you would be sorry to hear that someone else bought it for, if you could have afforded that amount.
10. And, last but not least, keep a sense of humor and perspective. Roll with the punches. You will get a home eventually. Sometimes you avoid a mistake, or gain new knowledge. Try to have patience--you will probably need it!