You should get approved prior to look into properties to find out how much a bank will approve you for, and what a property will cost you on a monthly basis. A lender should provide with along with the approval letter a good faith estimate which will tell you what your closing costs and monthly payments will be in a transaction. Your monthly payments will be a combination of your mortgage, property taxes, insurance and maintenance fee. So, before you decide on a property, you need to decide what amount you will be comfortable with and then start looking at properties. So, it is not that you need an approval letter to speak to a realtor, you need it to be able to make a decision as to how much you should spend on a property.
When you are looking into buying any product the old rule of checking with 3 sources aplies to the mortgage industry also. The best way to contract a service is always by referrals. Do you know anyone who has purchased a property lately? This would be a great source for you. What about your bank? Why don't you contact their loan department? If you are going to check your options, please note the best way to do it is to check them all (3) is in a period of 30 days; because it is within the same industry it will count only once on your credit report.
We are very experienced working with first-time buyers and would love to help you throughout the process: financing, inpections, title work and closing. Please contact us and we will be glad to meet with you to go over the buying process and to how we work and can help you.
Good luck to you,