Five Steps to Prepare for the Home-Buying Process

If buying a home is on your agenda this year, plan on the process taking roughly six months in the current market, experts say.

The length of the mortgage-application process has increased since the 2008 financial crisis, and while homeowners can’t do much to speed up that process, there are steps you can take to be prepared for what is likely to be the biggest purchase in your lifetime.

From figuring out how much you can afford to which neighborhood you want to live in, here’s a look at the steps you need to take to ready yourself for the buying process.

Check Your Credit Score

Long gone are the days when you could get a mortgage without having to show proof of income and filling out reams of paper work. Lenders are much more strict with their requirements for getting a mortgage, and a high credit score is top priority.

Read: Four Big Money Mistakes of First-Time Homebuyers

Shannon Cullins, vice president of product development at, recommends potential buyers obtain a copy of their credit report six months before they plan to buy to check for inaccuracies. Six months also allows for time to improve a borderline score.

Figure Out Your Real Budget

Before starting your house hunt, determine what you can afford to pay each month in mortgage payments. It’s important to keep in mind that even if you get preapproved for a mortgage of $400,000, that doesn’t mean you can afford that hefty of a payment each month.

“Human instinct is to shop by price, but what they really should do is shop monthly payment,” says Mike Litzner, broker and owner of Century 21 American Homes. In addition to a mortgage payment, you need to calculate property taxes and homeowners insurance as well as maintenance as the total monthly home budget.

Get Preapproved for a Mortgage

Even if you think you’ll have no problem securing a mortgage, getting preapproved not only lets you know how much home you can conceivably shop for, but it will also give you more negotiating power during the buying process.

Read: Five Things Homebuyers and Sellers Should Know About Credits

A preapproved buyer is more attractive to sellers. “You want to make sure you are searching within your price range,” says Cullins. “The bank’s not going to approve your loan just because you fell in love with a house.”

Determine if Homeownership Makes Sense

So you’ve been approved for a mortgage and have a budget, but that doesn’t mean you should definitely buy a home.

Jessica Edwards, the Coldwell Banker Real Estate consumer specialist, recommends evaluating your wants and needs from where you live and immediate future plans before becoming a homeowner.

“Homeownership isn’t for everyone,” she says. “You need to look at your life style and your goals.” For instance, do you plan to relocate in a couple years or are you living in the town or city you plan to settle in for good? The answers to these questions will help you determine whether to buy a home.

Figure Out Your Ideal Location

Most homebuyers have a general sense of a region or city they wish to plant their roots, but experts advise being much more specific with your search.

Location will dictate how you live, so it’s a good idea to narrow the search to certain neighborhoods. Figure out what amenities are important to you and your lifestyle, like public transportation, grocery stores or easy access to highways or airports.

Once you have a list of potential neighborhoods, Litzner recommends checking out open houses and contact a real estate agent in that area. “It’s good to go with someone that knows the area. They will know every house on the market and every house coming on the market.”

Set Realistic Expectations

Everyone wants walk-in closets, granite countertops and a two-car garage—but that doesn’t mean you should rule out a house because it doesn’t have every single of the items on  your desired list. It’s important to distinguish between your necessities and your wishes.

“Knowing what the ‘must haves’ as opposed to the things they would like will help the search process,” Edwards says. Not knowing what you absolutely must have from a home makes it easy to get distracted buy an over-the-top kitchen and other nice amenities.