In today's lending environment, I believe all lenders must be extremely competitive in fees and rates. One factor that various from one institution to another is the speed at which you can get your loan approved and funded to meet your contractual agreements.
You will primarily have 2 options: you can either work with a mortgage broker or with a direct lender (mortgage banker). There are benefits to working with both, but you should certainly work the person/company you feel most comfortable with. Your real estate agent can give you insight into their experience working with either brokers or bankers.
Here is the Consumer website to see if your mortgage loan originator is licensed: http://www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org/
Since you are a first time buyer, a good mortgage professional should be able to answer all your up-front questions and concerns related to the home buying process. (credit requirements, cash to close, fees, timelines, appraisal process, working with short sales and bank-owned properties). You will know right away if you're dealing with someone you can put your confidence in.
One thing worth noting: you typically cannot lock in your mortgage rate until you find a property and have an accepted offer. Therefore, rates change daily and you will already be "in the game" and in the process by the time you can lock your rate. Since there is so much work to do in the Pre-Qualification/ Pre-Approval stage of the process, you will get a preview of the level of service and attention you (and your Realtor) can expect to receive during the actual escrow.
I hope this helps someone out there.
Yes, make comparisons. Your agent should be able to help guide you to reputable local lenders. Costs can vary.
You are expected to shop comparability on large expenditures as well. The decision process seems more complicated as the cost of the product or service grows. The downside is that having a choice requires making another decision. A decision that you may not be 100% sure is right.
Maybe or maybe not a better deal appears elsewhere after making your comparisons or maybe you just feel better about your first choice. Or maybe the comparisons leave you more confused than when you started.