So you’re thinking about buying your first home. Your very own house (and mortgage). A place to call — and make — your own. It’s a big move, literally and figuratively. Buying a house requires a serious amount of money and time. The journey isn’t always easy. It isn’t always intuitive. But when you get the keys to your new home — that, friend, can be one of the most rewarding feelings pretty much ever. The key to getting there? Knowing the home-buying journey. Knowing what tools are at your disposal. And most importantly? Creating relationships with experts who can help you get the job done. That’s where this guide comes in. We’ll show you not only the major steps you’ll take during the home-buying process, but also explain the relationships and experts you’ll need along the way. You ready to live the dream? Here we go.

Step 1. Improve your credit score
A high credit score snags you the best deals. “Below 660 or 680, you’re either going to have to pay sizable fees or a higher down payment,” says Barry Zigas, director of housing policy for the Consumer Federation of America. A score of 700 to 720 will get you a good deal, and 750 and above will garner the best rates on the market. Stop applying for new credit a year before you apply for a mortgage. Keep the moratorium in place until after you close on your home.

Step 2. Figure out what you can afford
There are various ways to determine how much house you can afford. If you’re using an FHA loan, your monthly payment can’t exceed 31 percent of your monthly income. The FHA will let you go higher under some circumstances. For conventional loans, home expenses should not exceed 28 percent of your gross monthly income, says Susan Tiffany, retired director of personal finance publications for adults for the Credit Union National Association, or CUNA.

Step 3. Build a healthy savings account
Building up your savings, not just for a home, is very important. Your lender wants to know that you’re not living paycheck to paycheck. If you have three to five months’ worth of mortgage payments set aside, you’re a much better loan candidate. Some lenders and backers, like the FHA, will give you more latitude on other criteria if they see that you have a cash cushion. That money will also help pay for maintenance and repairs of the home. Most repairs are sporadic, but big-ticket fixes such as a new roof or water heater can come up suddenly and drain your budget. A good rule of thumb is to assume that you’ll spend 2.5 to 3 percent of your home’s value each year on upkeep and repairs. If you buy a $250,000 home, aim to save $520 to $625 per month.

Step 4. Buy a house you like
Short-term homeownership can be expensive, depending on how much you put down and what it cost you to sell your old house and move. To get a home that will make you happy, don’t count on a quick purchase. Step back and make certain the house you’re considering is one that will fit the needs of you and your family.