1. Down payments are critical. Borrowers should expect to put down at least 10 percent for a "conforming loan" -- a mortgage that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will purchase.
2. Credit scores count. A 720 on the 850-point FICO rating scale will get a borrower access to the best rates. Rich Bira, branch manager of FCM Direct Lender in Chicago, says: "A score between 720 and 739 gets 0.125 percent added to the rate, a score between 700 and 719 gets 0.375 percent added to the rate, and a score between 680 and 699 gets 0.5 percent added to the rate."
3. Consider VA and FHA. Borrowers without down payments or with less than stellar credit scores should consider these government-insured loans offered through the Federal Housing Administration or the Veterans Administration.
4. Unearth the records. Before applying, borrowers should organize tax, banking and other records that prove income, savings and debts. They should also expect to be patient about what may seem to be endless requests for information.
5. Get rid of debts. Limiting debts, including what borrowers expect to pay for the mortgage, to less than 43 percent of gross income is important.