From the moment a first-time home buyer begins searching until the final closing papers are signed could be as short as three months or as long as three years.

Along the way, the journey is filled with twists, turns and probably some bumps in the road. So how do you navigate the journey? Once you get “in the game,” you should start setting the top criteria for your home early on. Establishing your most important factors upfront will help you stay on track as you move through the home buying process. It also will help you know when to compromise and when to stick to your original list.

As the home buying process evolves, your criteria may change as well. Nobody ever gets everything on their list. In fact, many buyers, around the closing table, have a chuckle as they compare their original list of criteria to what they eventually got.

Here are the three phases of the home buying journey where your criteria will be established.

1. Dreaming

Leveraging the Internet and online listings, buyers in this next generation of real estate have the opportunity to consider all options, get a feel for what they want, see what’s out there and start to understand their must-haves, nice-to-haves and the bonus stuff.

As the journey evolves, you should begin to nail down requirements and prioritize your wants and needs. The search often changes, and part of the process is to learn what works and what doesn’t. But starting out with a fairly concrete, realistic “wish” list will inform your search.

2. Getting in the Game

Any serious buyer working with a great local agent, and with a bank pre-approval in hand, will take the home search up a notch. At this point, it’s important to determine the two biggest pieces of the puzzle: price and location. Without these criteria, you’d simply be shooting from the hip.

Price trumps all criteria. What you can afford generally dictates where you’ll live as well as the type of home you’ll purchase. Location is one of the three magic words in real estate, and it comes a close second in the home search. The thing about location is that it can’t ever be taken away from you. But a home can be altered to adapt to a location. Many buyers, keen on a certain neighborhood or school district, will consider buying a home that needs work or one that’s not ideal for their situation simply to be in the right location.

3. Compromising

After determining price and location, a buyer needs to consider things such as number of bedrooms, bathrooms and the size of the home. While there are times when you’ll choose size over location, generally the location informs the size.

After that, considerations such as a finished basement, large lot, pool or open floor plan, while important, may get trumped because of location and price.

The important thing is to prioritize what you really must have vs. what you want to have. Also, try to think ahead. Are today’s top priorities likely to remain your top priorities a few years from now? Or would it make more sense to get a 3-bedroom house, for instance, instead of a 2-bedroom home, as you may have children later or might need a home office down the road.

It’s not easy to set your criteria for buying a home, given how important the purchase will be. But if you don’t, you’ll be all over the map in your home search, wasting valuable time and effort. And if you’re busy chasing properties that don’t really meet your needs, you may overlook something that does.

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Brendon DeSimone is the author of “Next Generation Real Estate: New Rules for Smarter Home Buying & Faster Selling,” the go-to insider’s guide for navigating and better understanding the complex and ever-evolving world of buying and selling a home. DeSimone is the founder and principal of DeSimone & Co, an independent NYC real estate brokerage providing individualized services and a fresh, hands-on approach. Bringing more than a decade of residential real estate experience, DeSimone is a recognized national real estate expert and has appeared on top media outlets including CNBC, Good Morning America, HGTV, FOX News, Bloomberg and FOX Business. Consumers often call on Brendon for advice and to help them find a real estate agent. You can follow him on Twitter orGoogle Plus.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.