You probably know in your heart what you’re looking for in your perfect home. Maybe it’s a tidy white gate, a manicured lawn and a master bathroom with the perfect tub for bubble baths. Or maybe you’d be perfectly at home in a chic loft space with exposed brick and a state-of-the-art kitchen. No matter what your version of a dream house looks like, finding it will take some time. You can boost your odds of success by working with a dedicated professional and by getting a handle on what you want—long before you ever cross the threshold at your first open house.

Not sure where to begin? Here’s a guide to help you find a new home that’s right for you. Ready, set, house-hunt!

On Your Mark…

First thing’s first: Are you really ready to buy a home? Your dream house can be a great investment if you plan to live there for some time—and if your finances are in order. Before you start shopping, decide what you could afford to spend on a monthly payment and use a mortgage calculator to determine how that number affects the total cost of the houses you should be looking at. It won’t do you any good to tour homes that are way out of your price range.

Once you have a sense of your budget, get started on all that paperwork with a mortgage broker to get pre-approved for your loan. If you’ve never applied for a mortgage before, you may be surprised by just how much information you’ll need to gather—tax returns, pay stubs, identification, letters of reference—and it all takes time to do so. Getting pre-approved is worth the effort, though, as your offer will be much more attractive to the seller of your future dream house.

Get Set…

If you’re one of those rare people who have never given much thought to what your dream house would look like, spend a few weekends dropping in to all of the open houses you can. Think of this as window shopping to get an idea of what features and layouts you like—and what you absolutely can’t stand. All the HGTV viewing in the world isn’t a substitute for walking around actual houses to get a sense of what different styles and floor plans feel like in person.

After you have a general sense of what you like and what you don’t, it’s time to get more serious with your house shopping:

  • Explore Different Neighborhoods: Visit the areas you’re considering at different times of day to get a sense of noise, traffic and the general vibe—the location of your future home is just as important as its size and features. It’s also a good idea to get out and walk around on foot to absorb the local atmosphere. You can tell a lot about how happy you’ll be living there from your gut reaction during this recon mission.
  • Make a List of Your Must-Have Features: It’s time to put in writing what you need to be happy with your new home. This is highly personal, of course, but be honest with yourself. If you hate the snow and love your car, a garage should probably be on your list. If you have pets, a fenced-in yard is a must-have. Keep this on an index card that you can easily bring to showings—if all your ideas don’t fit on a 3″ x 5″ card, you’re probably listing wants instead of needs.
  • Determine Your Timing: If you don’t have a deadline for relocating, you’ll be shopping from a position of strength because you won’t feel any pressure to compromise on your needs list or take on more debt that you can comfortably handle just to get a quick deal. If your lease is running out or you need to relocate for a new job, you’ll need to be ready to make more compromises. Give yourself as much time as possible for your house-hunting mission.

Go!

Once you’ve done all the prep work, it’s time to choose a real estate agent. Buying a house is a huge investment with serious legal ramifications, so don’t even think about trying to go at it alone. When you’re ready to take up your house hunting in earnest, you must have dedicated buyer’s agent working for you. This person is your representative in the transaction—that’s different from the seller’s agent, who is working to get the highest price on that house. A buyer’s agent has your best interests in mind and will help you negotiate a fair price.

A great realtor also knows the local market, including pricing conditions and common features or pitfalls of homes in your region. He or she should be able to offer you excellent advice that’s tailored to your needs. You’ll be working closely with your real estate agent for several months, so it’s important to choose someone you click with. Here’s how to find the right real estate agent for you:

  • Ask for Recommendations: Ask friends and family if they have a realtor they’d recommend, and follow up by asking about that person’s personality and working style. These references will be in-depth and completely honest, which will help you get a sense of what working with the realtor will be like.
  • Interview Several Local Realtors: The internet makes it easy to search for local agents, so be sure to call at least three for an interview. In addition to asking about their credentials and years of experience, make sure to ask about their working style, including their preferred modes of contact. If you’re not as technology-savvy as you’d like, you won’t be happy with a social media guru!
  • Ask About Availability: Some realtors work part-time, while others are part of a team that may send different agents your way if things get busy. Ask about any prospective realtor’s working hours to make sure you get a good fit with your schedule. It’s also a good idea to ask about any upcoming vacations so you don’t get left out of the market for a week or two.

Once you’ve chosen a real estate agent you love, you’re ready to start your home shopping in earnest. Make the most of that relationship by sharing your budget, neighborhood preferences and your list of must-haves so your agent can tailor recommendations for your dream house. With these pieces in place, you’ll enjoy your home shopping experience  and you’ll be ready to pounce on the right place when you finally see it. After that, it’s time to start packing!

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