Get Ready to Buy a Home This Spring

Before you start looking at houses, investigate neighborhoods. School quality is important even if you don't have children, because when it comes time to sell the home, buyers may want good schools. Beware neighborhoods with large numbers of "distressed sales" such as foreclosures and short sales. Those desperate sellers may settle for fire-sale prices, undercutting home values, and you don't want to be in a neighborhood with vacant homes that are deteriorating.

Finally, start your mortgage hunt, looking for a lender with a good combination of low rate and low fees. Narrow the list to three or four lenders so you'll be able to move quickly when you find a home. Get a pre-approval, which is a lender's assurance you can qualify for a loan of a given size. That will make your offer more appealing to the seller.