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Before you search for a home...

You've decided to take the plunge -- become a homeowner instead of a renter -- so you begin reading every real estate ad, driving around neighborhoods, and getting a good feel for where you want to be.

You may even contact a Realtor and begin looking.

But that's not the first step you should be taking.

The very first step should be to check your credit scores. Then you'll know if you need to do a little work before you shop. In past markets, a good score meant better interest rates. In today's market your scores have to be good or you won't get a loan at all!

So, first, click here and order a free copy of your credit report.

Then, if you're ready, contact that Realtor and ask for the names of a few lenders he or she has been happy with in the past. Then meet with one or more before you begin looking at homes.

There are three good reasons for getting referrals and for meeting with the lender before you begin shopping. The first is that not all lenders are created equal. In fact, there are vast differences. For starters, different companies offer different programs and different fees and costs.

Some charge a minimum, and some add on "junk fees" until your eyes blur.

You want to know what that loan will cost in terms of fees - not just the final percentage rate your loan will carry. A lender may not want to give you a good faith estimate until you've chosen a house, but you can ask for a run-down on the fees you can expect -- along with the dollar amount they'll add to your closing costs. .

The personality difference is also worth consideration. You'll be working closely with your lender for several weeks. If he or she makes you feel uncomfortable -- or even inferior -- then you won't be happy. Choose someone who is easy to talk with and who treats you as an equal - or better yet, treats you as an asset to his or her business. Perhaps more importantly, choose someone who will answer every one of your questions in a clear manner.

The second is that having a pre-approval letter could mean the difference between getting the house you want and losing it.

If you offer on a house and can show that you are able to buy it, your offer will be seen more favorably than the same offer from someone who has not pre-qualified. If you have no pre-qualification letter and your offer is contingent on getting a loan, it means the sellers only know you want the house -- not that you can actually buy it.

Consider the seller's point of view. Would you want to take your house off the market on the hope that your buyer will be able to get financing, or would you rather keep accepting offers until you know he or she has the ability to buy?

Lastly, a good lender will be a help when you get ready to make an offer. Some loan programs allow the sellers to pay a percentage of your closing costs. Your lender will advise you about how to structure your offer to make best use of your own cash.

Begin your home search with a visit to your lender -- everything will go more smoothly as a result.