Once you know your price range, then think about areas. Drive through some potential communities on the weekends, stop in at open houses, and explore the locations. Use data on Trulia to help you assess what areas you can afford.
About six months before you are ready to buy, get yourself a pre-approval letter from your lender. Then, start interviewing Realtors to begin searching inventory.
I wrote an article on this issue. Chec it out: http://1sandiegohomesales.com/361/
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After that, the Realtor can but you on his back burner, just keeping you informed about what the market is doing, and emailing you properties that match your needs. When you are ready, the Realtor can take a more active role in your search.
I have worked with clients for 3 years, just keeping them informed, and when they were ready, we easily found the right home, because all the prep work had already been done.
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