Note: This post is part of an ongoing series aimed at helping first-time homebuyers.

If you're thinking about buying your first home, getting pre-approved for a mortgage should be the first item on your to-do list. So, what does that mean and why do you need it?

Pre-approval means that a mortgage lender has gone over your financials and can state, in writing, how much you're qualified to borrow. This is crucial information because it helps you define your price range, the amount of the down payment you'll need in that price range, and even the neighborhoods that are within your financial reach. There's nothing more heartbreaking for hopeful buyers than realizing the home they've set their hearts on is priced too high for their borrowing power.

But these aren't the only advantages of pre-approval. Having that lender "seal of approval" makes you a more solid candidate in the eyes of sellers. And that can make the difference between moving into and saying goodbye to a home you love.

More buyers today are competing with each other for properties. In many markets, there is a limited supply of homes for sale. In areas with low inventory, pre-approved buyers already have a leg up on the competition, because they're that much closer to being able to complete a sale.

In some cases you have to be pre-approved to even be able to put in a bid. That's typically the case if, for example, you're considering buying short sales and foreclosures.

So take that important first step toward homeownership by getting pre-approved. Contact a local RE/MAX agent who can help you navigate the whole process.

Pre-Approval Prep

To get ready for pre-approval, know what's in your credit reports, pay off as many outstanding debts as possible, and get your financial papers in order. You'll be asked to provide several types of documents, including:

  • Photo ID (usually a driver's license or passport)
  • Social security number
  • Recent pay stubs - usually for the previous two months
  • W-2 tax forms for the past two years
  • Two years of federal tax returns
  • Two months of recent bank statements
  • The lender may also ask for any other investment and savings statements, as well as contact information for your landlord (if you're renting).

After your paperwork is complete, the lender can often respond in as quickly as 48 hours.