This will sound self-serving, but the best overall advice I can give you is to get representation. A good real estate agent is worth their weight in gold. They'll help you with everything from recommending a good loan agent (and that in itself, in this challenging lending environment, will not only help you with your loan but with qualifying you to the listing agent and seller when you finally do decide to write an offer on a home you love).
A good real estate agent is often well-connected, for lack of a better term - someone who often knows about properties before they hit the market, and who has trusted relationships with agents who work in the areas you'd like to live in. They can advise you about an upcoming listing, giving you ample time to not only mentally prepare whether you'd like to move forward with an offer on a home, but review comparable sales in an area to know what a reasonable, yet compelling, offer might look like. And, when the time comes to submit an offer, a good agent will go to bat for you - and knows how to negotiate.
A good agent will help educate you about the market. Every neighborhood in San Francisco is a city within the City, and there are subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions on every block. Schools, traffic, transportation, future developments, parks, good food (and this city loves to eat) - all matter when buying, and all matter when selling!
For a first time homebuyer, follow this checklist:
1. Talk to friends/relatives/co-workers about the agents they've used. If you're new here, go to some open houses and meet some agents. Who seems the best prepared? Who is engaged and knowledgeable? Chances are those who best prepare for their open houses are those who will work the hardest for you.
2. Ask the agent about getting pre-approved. Ask them for a recommendation (or two, or three) for a good loan agent.
3. When you know your price range, try it out in different areas. Chances are that even though you were dead-set on a one-bedroom condo in Mission Dolores, you might be pleasantly surprised what that might buy you somewhere else.
4. Be ready to take action. Someone flipped a switch this year and the market is hot again. It may take some heroics to get a home you love - don't be afraid to go for it. *** And, I ask this of all of my clients, TRY TO SEE YOURSELF LIVING IN THE HOME! If I'm going to give you keys on that first day of homeownership, how do you feel? If you can look deep within and know it's meant to be, then go for it!
5. Read and re-read the disclosures. For example, if you're buying a condo, look at the homeowners association reserves. Look at the meeting minutes and budget statements. Make sure there are no surprises (ie., special assessments or an upcoming increase in monthly dues). Look at items like the 3R report (the city's Report of Residential Record). What improvements were done with/without permit?
6. If your offer is accepted, do your due diligence. Have all the inspections you need (and there's a full menu of inspections to be had in San Francisco, just like anywhere else).
7. Watch the clock. Be aware of all of your passive and active contingencies in your contract. A good agent will guide you here.
8. Stay in close contact with your loan agent. Be ready for any additional documentation they might (and probably will) ask for from you. Lenders want everything but your first born nowadays, so don't take anything personally. They just want to make sure they're not repeating some of the sins from pre-2008.
9. This will sound like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth, but try to enjoy this time! If you're in escrow, then you're only a month or so away from getting the keys to your new home.
That's a condensed version of what can be a complicated process, but you get the gist. Please don't hesitate to contact me if I can help in any way.