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"Buying a first home can be stressful, but there’s a plethora of ways to make the process easier—and get a great deal in the bargain."

For most Americans, buying a first home often comes along with a major life change—after a wedding, a baby, or simply because they’ve decided that the time has come to stop paying rent. For most of us, that makes buying a home even more stressful than it already is. But as the Stones found, there’s a plethora of ways to make the process less stressful—and get a better deal in the bargain.

The first step is getting to know the market, and these days there’s no better way to do that than hitting the Web. Web sites such as Realtor.com® , Zillow.com® , Trulia.com®, and PropertyShark.com®, can all help create a sense of the local real estate marketplace that can then be tested against the reality of actual properties on the websites of local realtors who share listings on a local MLS (Multiple Listing Service). If you’ve never "shopped" for real estate this way, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your understanding of the market will grow just by shopping these sites. (Don’t forget other local online sources – your local newspaper and Craigslist.com ®, for example.) In a matter of just a few hours, you’ll have developed a sophisticated view of what’s available in your neighborhood and how home values are being calculated — and you’ll save a lot of time not driving around your new neighborhood in circles with a real estate agent.

Both banks and brokers have their strengths and weaknesses. Brokers work with many mortgage bankers and, as a result, can find more competitive rates—perhaps a quarter of a percent lower—but dealing directly with a mortgage banker can move a loan along more quickly.

Your buying business isn’t complete until you’ve gone through the process of filling out a 1003 (say Ten, Oh, Three) form (the basic loan application form developed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and used by most banks and mortgage brokers). Once you do, by law, you will receive a Good Faith Estimate and TIL (Truth in Lending) disclosure from your loan officer—an official estimate of your closing costs and cost of your credit in chart form—within three days of providing your loan application. This is your lender’s estimate of what it will cost you to close including the Annual Percentage Rate (APR)—the cost of money borrowed in a percentage rate, inclusive of all fees.