Happy New Year to You! In response to your questions:
1. Mortgage rates are really low right now - excellent time to buy in terms of rates and we don't know how long they will stay that way. Besides, housing prices are also down and there are a lot of foreclosures out there as well - lot's of deals so you can make out on both ends and get more for your money. There are a lot of nay sayers out there who will tell you that only Realtors will tell you it's a good time to buy, but I'm speaking from experience and right now the investors are out there buying up properties. That alone is a good sign.
2. That's hard to say...if you're ready to buy, then you want to get pre-approved now. You lender will pull your credit report for you. (Although you are allowed to pull your credit report free of charge once a year and you can do this online - very easily). Reason being, if you find the home you want, you're going to want to have all your documentation ready. In my area, and I know this may not be true everywhere, but in our area, REOs (bank owned properties) go under agreement in 3-4 days so you need to be ready.
3. Nowadays with the tightening of the lenders, you often have to put down 20%; 30% for investment property. There are some who will do less, but you'll have to hunt around for them.
4. I'm sure you can find a First Time Homebuyers seminar - I would check in your local paper first. Otherwise I would just go online. We have a lot of tutorials for buyers as well on our site. Go to: http://coldwellbanker.feedroom.com/
and click on 'Ready to Buy' and you'll see the video's to the right i.e. Basics of First Time Home Buying, First Time Homebuyers Do's and Don'ts, Buying your First Home, etc. You can also go to my webpage: http://www.camoves.com/cynthia.fleming
and click on 'Our Services' and then 'Homebuyer Services'. There's a lot of information there and I hope you find it helpful. If you have any other questions or concerns, feel free to email me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
4. It's up to you, as I mentioned above, it's beneficial to be pre-approved before you start looking for homes, however, if you are unfamiliar with the lenders in your area, an agent will be able to recommend one for you. If you already have a lender in mind or are using your credit union for instance, then I recommend you get started...no reason to wait.
I hope I've been helpful!! Best of luck to you in your home search! Have a Happy, Healthy & Prosperous 2009!