Improve your creditworthiness

Save for a Down Payment

Seek Preapproval

Your credit profile is important to a lender. While you're preparing to buy a home, be sure you're responsibly managing your current debt. Always pay your bills on time and chip away at your outstanding balances by paying more than the minimum. In most cases, lenders like to see a borrower with a debt-to-income ratio of 36% or less.

Although a 20% down payment on a mortgage is ideal, it's not mandatory. Many lenders expect buyers to put down at least 3%, aside from the Federal Housing Administration, which requires a 3.5% down payment. However, if you're interested in building sizable equity right away, stash a hefty amount of cash to take to the closing table. Additionally, do your due diligence to find out about any local down payment assistance programs.

Before you rush into house-hunting mode, get a mortgage preapproval. This process is used to help determine how much money you're qualified to borrow for a home purchase. Once you're preapproved, you'll have a more realistic expectation of which for-sale houses fall within your budget. You may qualify for a loan that is roughly 3 times your gross annual income.

Research loan types

Don't forget closing costs

Remember to budget

A fixed-rate mortgage isn't right for every homebuyer. Neither is an adjustable-rate mortgage. If you plan to stay put in a home to raise a family, you might consider a 30-year loan. Conversely, if you're moving in 10 years or less, an adjustable-rate mortgage, or ARM, could better suit you. Interest rates on ARMs are fixed for the first several years of the loan and often start out lower than rates on 30-year fixed loans. There are also jumbo loans, which are typically used to purchase luxury homes.

Not only do you need a solid down payment for a home purchase, you'll have to pay closing costs. The loan estimate you receive after applying for a mortgage gives you an idea of the "cash to close," or the money you need to complete the transaction. There are some closing costs for which you can shop and save money, and others that are fixed. Read Bankrate's primer on negotiating closing costs for more tips.

Your monthly mortgage payment won't be the only expense you have as a homeowner. There's also homeowners insurance, property taxes, maintenance costs and, more than likely, homeowners association fees, which is why it's necessary to stick to a budget. Use Bankrate's "How much house can I afford?" calculator to determine a feasible home loan amount.

Beef up your savings account

It's unwise to drain your savings to fund your down payment or closing costs and leave nothing in the account to cover emergencies. A useful rule of thumb is to stockpile 3 to 6 months' worth of living expenses. This deters you from tapping credit cards or loans and amassing more debt.