It's good to start your home-search on your own, particularly if you haven't yet chosen an agent. Just going to open houses for a week or two or surfing the Internet will help you get a sense of the local market. Such research can also refine your sense of how much house you can afford, potentially expand your horizons regarding livable neighborhoods, and wise you up to what all the advertising hype really means -- or disguises.
If you haven't already chosen the area where you want to live, see Researching the Best Places to Live.
Somewhere out there is a seller who wants to sell a home as badly as you want to buy one. This means you can count on homes being advertised in at least a few places. Here are the best ways to get up-to-date information:
When you see a home that interests you, either make an appointment to see it or check whether an open house has been scheduled.
After you've begun surveying the territory, and perhaps experienced a reality check regarding what you can afford, create your personalized "ideal house profile." Simply write down:
There's nothing like seeing what's actually out there to help you refine your idea of what you want and help you come to terms with how much your desires will cost! Carry your ideal house profile with you whenever you visit a house. To be even more organized, turn your profile into a checklist, and fill one out every time you visit a house. For a preprinted house profile and checklist, see Nolo's eGuide Find and Finance Your Dream House or, if you're buying in the golden state, Nolo's How to Buy a House in California, by Ralph Warner, Ira Serkes, and George Devine.
Of course, this process can't be entirely scientific. It's okay to fall in love with a house. You should feel good living there, and it will be an expression of you and your lifestyle. Just watch out that you don't make an impulsive purchase -- always keep the important categories from your checklist in mind.
Having taken these preliminary steps, you'll find that, if and when you do hire an agent, you'll be able to focus the agent's energies on the most productive, final phases of your home search. You may also find that, even after hiring an agent, you prefer to visit some homes on your own, for convenience or even to escape the agent's influence. For information on deciding whether to work with an agent, see Should I Hire a Real Estate Agent or Lawyer to Buy a House?
For more information on deciding what you want in a house, as well as how you're going to afford it, how to work with an agent, and how to negotiate and close the deal, read Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home , by Ilona Bray, Alayna Schroeder, and Marcia Stewart.