The typical American spends more time thinking about buying a car than buying a house. Even though the house they buy might wind up costing several times as much as the car.

Why is that? While buying a home has long been part of the American Dream, it’s a daunting task – especially for first-time homebuyers. Many would-be buyers, overwhelmed by the process and the current state of the market, give up and decide to rent.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The fact is, today’s housing market is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for first-time buyers. Interest rates are at near-record lows, homes are more affordable than they have been in years and there are plenty of homes for sale (with more on the way, thanks to the foreclosure crisis). Buyers are more likely to truly find the home of their dreams than they were in years past.

Based on the questions I’ve received over the years, I’ve compiled a list of 6 tips every first-time home buyer should take. Keep these tips in mind as you begin the search for your perfect home, and I’m sure your experience will be far easier.

Tip #1: What’s the budget? This is the question my husband asked me when we were shopping for our first home. It seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many buyers don’t start by figuring out how much money they have to spend on their house purchase. It’s easy to show up at open houses and fall in love, but why waste time looking at homes that are out of your price range? The last thing you want is to find your dream home and realize it’s way over your budget.

Banks will tell you that you can spend up to 28 percent of your gross monthly income (GMI) on your mortgage, taxes and homeowners’ insurance premium, and up to 36 percent on your total debt. If you take out an FHA loan, you can go even higher – to 42 percent of your GMI.
The problem is 42 percent of your GMI will feel like nearly 60 percent of your take home pay, or more if you are contributing to a 401(k) at work. Remember this: Just because someone will lend you more money doesn’t mean you should borrow it.

To calculate a housing budget you can live with, start by figuring out how much you spend each month. Track your daily expenses in a notebook over the course of four weeks to get a real sense of how much is going out and where you’re spending most of your available cash. Watch your savings and calculate how long it will take you to come up with a down payment.

Before you commit to a mortgage amount, be sure to take the true cost of making those monthly principal, interest, taxes and insurance payments each month and apply them to your take-home pay. Don’t worry about mortgage deductions or the after-tax consequences – just look at the numbers and think about what else you spend each month and try to understand if you’ll feel comfortable. Because if you can’t sleep at night worrying about paying the mortgage or fixing your broken water heater, you’re spending too much.

Tip #2: Come up with a realistic wish-list. The key here is ‘realistic.’ Based on the housing budget you figured out, and where you want to live, compile a list of what you’d like to have in your first home.

Research is helpful when putting together your list. Check out some homes in your price range online to get a feel for what your money will buy, and make your wish list based on the home you see. If you’d love a fully renovated kitchen but none of the listings in your price range have one, be prepared to compromise. You can always upgrade later, but you really shouldn’t spend more than you can afford just for nicer finishes.

Tip #3: Get pre-approved for a mortgage. In this market, many deals contingent on financing fall apart because buyers can’t find a bank to give them a mortgage. Getting pre-approved for your mortgage will help you avoid this problem. Start by shopping around for a lender. You should speak to at least three or four different types of lenders including big national banks, mortgage brokers, regional banks, local lenders and possibly a credit union. Check out the Yahoo! Homes Mortgage page to see a list of lenders in your area, along with estimated rates and payments.

Once you’ve compared a few loans from different types of lenders side-by-side and decided on the right one for you, it’s time to get pre-approved. Some lenders will charge for pre-approval, so be sure to ask about those costs up front. You’ll need to provide the lender with details of your credit, income and assets to start the process. The bank will verify everything and issue a letter that tells you, and sellers, how much the bank is willing to lend you.

Typically, pre-approvals are good for 60 to 90 days. If you don’t find a home within that period of time, you may need to re-qualify with your lender.

Tip #4: Find a good home inspector. A knowledgeable home inspector is just as important as a great real estate agent. Getting a home inspection can save you thousands of dollars in the long run, but it has to be thorough. Ask friends and co-workers for referrals, or find out if your real estate agent has anyone they would recommend.

Once you’ve gotten a few names, interview potential candidates. Don’t be afraid to ask questions: find out what their process is for inspecting a home, how long it usually takes, what their expertise is and what kind of information and paperwork you will receive after the inspection. If there’s anything special about the property you’re interested in – for example, a septic or propane tank – be sure the home inspector knows what to look for. Finally, be sure to follow up on any red flags in the home inspection report by hiring experts to come in and take a closer look at a possibly radon issue or evidence of a pest infestation.

Tip #5: Understand the true costs of homeownership. This tip comes from one of my Twitter followers in Florida, @pstaines. Many first-time home buyers get so caught up in the idea of owning a home that they forget about life after closing. The real costs begin after you move into the house. In addition to mortgage payments, you’ll owe taxes, insurance and homeowner’s association (HOA) fees, and be responsible for any maintenance issues that come up while you own the home.

These costs are all the more reason not to spend every last dime on your mortgage payment. If you have nothing left after paying your mortgage, you’ll be unable to pay all the other fees or save for unexpected expenses.
 
Tip #6: You may love the home, but get to know the neighborhood before you make an offer. This is another good tip from one of my Twitter followers, @abirenews in Atlanta. He suggests talking to the neighbors to get the inside scoop on what it’s like to live there. Bad neighbors can affect your property’s value, but good neighbors can be an invaluable resource to first-time homebuyers.
 
If you think you’ve found the neighborhood you want to buy in, take it a step further. Drive from your potential new home to your office during rush hour to see what the commute is like, and to places you’d go on a regular basis like the grocery store, gym and gas station.

There’s a lot to think about when buying your first home, but remembering these tips should help you navigate the process and avoid potential minefields. Take your time, do your research and don’t let anyone pressure you into buying a home you’re not completely sure of. In this market you’ll be there a while, so make sure it’s somewhere you want to live for the long-term.