Ringing in the New Year with a New House
First, get your finances in order. Unless you're paying cash for a house, you'll need a mortgage. While mortgage lending rules have relaxed a bit recently, you'll still need to have all your money matters organized and tidy before you sit down with a loan officer (even a virtual one). Get a copy of your credit report to ensure you haven't been a victim of identity theft, and confirm all your bills have been paid on time. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact the credit reporting agency to report inaccurate information.
It's always a good idea to get pre-approved for a mortgage. In some parts of the country the real estate market never slows down, and you need to be ready to make an offer on a house when you find it. These days, many sellers will not even consider an offer without a pre-approval from a lender. Don't confuse a pre-approval with a pre-qualification; the pre-approval says that your credit and income are already okay--sometimes already underwritten--with the lender, you just need to find a house. A pre-qualification says that they looked at your credit report and if all other factors check out then they'll consider a loan.
You want everything in a new house--great schools, outdoor kitchen, open floor plan, mature landscaping, privacy, fabulous neighbors, and low real estate taxes. Chances are you're going to have to make some compromises somewhere, so go ahead and make your wants list and your needs list, and see where the two intersect. Regardless of your budget you're not going to get everything you want, so focus on your needs. If you need to be in a certain school district, or you need to be within a radius of the airport, or you have five kids and need five bedrooms, those non-negotiable should be at the top of your list. House-hunting is the ultimate Goldilocks experience, so don't even bother with houses that are too big or small, too far off the beaten track, or too expensive.
It should go without saying, but needs to be said anyway, that your family should be on the same page with the needs and the wants. If you want a large yard and your spouse would be happy with a high-rise, work out those little details before your realtor turns into a marriage counselor.
A Great Real Estate Agent
A great real estate agent is not the one who is a "million-dollar producer" (this could mean she sold ten houses in ten years) or whose face is all over billboards. A great realtor is the one that you feel like you can develop a solid working relationship with--after all, you're going to be spending a lot of time together, and she will be acting on your behalf in a large financial transaction. Find someone who's easy to talk to, that you can trust, and who really listens to what you're saying--if your limit is $350,000, she should respect that.
Your job when you're interviewing realtors is to be honest about your budget and your expectations. If you've been pre-approved for $600,000, don't waste your time or your realtor's looking at houses in the $700,000s. If you're relocating and have one weekend to house hunt, plan so that your realtor has blocked out the weekend just for you.
The internet makes house hunting so easy, you might find yourself falling in love and making an offer sight unseen. In that case, ask Santa to put some boxes in your stocking.