To get a sense of where your credit stands, go to myBankrate to collect your credit report and score today, free and with no obligation.
Scour the reports for mistakes, unpaid accounts or collection accounts.
Just because you pay everything on time every month doesn't mean your credit is stellar, however. The amount of credit you're using relative to your available credit limit, or your credit utilization ratio, can sink a credit score.
The lower the utilization rate, the higher your score will be. Ideally, first-time homebuyers would have a lot of credit available, with less than a third of it used.
Repairing damaged credit takes time -- and money, if you owe more than lenders would prefer to see relative to your income. Begin the process at least 6 months before shopping for a home.
Evaluate assets and liabilities
So you don't owe too much money and your payments are up to date. But how do you spend your money? Do you have piles of money left over every month, or are you on a shoestring budget?
A first-time homebuyer should have a good idea of what is owed and what is coming in.
"You should understand a little bit about monthly cash flow," says Winesburg.
"If I were a first-time homebuyer and I wanted to do everything right, I would probably try to track my spending for a couple of months to see where my money was going," he says.
Additionally, buyers should have an idea of how lenders will view their income, and that requires becoming familiar with the basics of mortgage lending.
For instance, some professionals, such as the self-employed or straight-commission salesperson, may have a more difficult time getting a loan than others.
According to Winesburg, the self-employed or independent contractor will need a solid 2 years' earnings history to show.
When applying for mortgages, homebuyers must document income and taxes.
Typically, mortgage lenders will request 2 recent pay stubs, the previous 2 years' W-2s, tax returns and the past 2 months of bank statements -- every page, even the blank ones.
"Why it has to be every single last page, I don't know. But that is what they want to see. I think they look for nonsufficient funds or odd money in or out," says Floyd Walters, owner of BWA Mortgage in La Canada Flintridge, California.
Buying a home can take a long time, but knowing what you need and where to find it can save time when you're ready.
Ideally, as a first-time homebuyer, you already know how much you can afford to spend before the mortgage lender tells you how much you qualify for. Bankrate's "How much house can I afford?" calculator will help.
By calculating debt-to-income ratio and factoring in a down payment, you will have a good idea of what you can afford, both upfront and monthly.
Though there's not a fixed debt-to-income ratio that lenders require, the old standard dictates that no more than 28 percent of your gross monthly income be devoted to housing costs. This percentage is called the front-end ratio.
The back-end ratio shows what portion of income covers all monthly debt obligations. Lenders prefer the back-end ratio to be 36 percent or less, but some borrowers get approved with back-end ratios of 45 percent or higher.
"Find out what you can afford and then you can back into everything else. We know the money you have available to put down, we know the monthly payment and we can solve (the equation) for the third variable -- and that is the home price," Winesburg says.
Figure out your down payment
It takes effort to scrape together the down payment.
There are programs that can assist buyers with qualifying incomes and situations.
"I've helped arrange assistance loans for $10,000, which are interest- and payment-free, and forgivable after 5 years. Although considered a loan, they're more like grants. Other programs can provide up to $40,000 interest-free," says Winesburg.
"Each state is different, but most of this money comes from the HOME Investment Partnership Program, which is a federal block grant to create affordable housing," he says.
Finally, speak with mortgage lenders when you're starting the process. Check with friends, co-workers and neighbors to find out which lenders they enjoyed working with and ask them questions about the process and what other steps first-time homebuyers should take.