It's good to shop for a mortgage before you even begin house hunting. You'll have a leg up, knowing exactly what you can afford, and you'll strike sellers as a serious buyer.

Don't let yourself feel intimidated by the process. Remember that lenders serve you, not the other way around. You'll be paying a lot in interest for many years, so you want to find a lender who'll serve you well and fairly.

Don't just shop, though -- go ahead and get "pre-approved." With a pre-approval or pre-qualification letter in hand, you'll be in a stronger negotiating position when it comes time to negotiate a purchase.

A pre-qualification letter is somewhat informal. It typically costs nothing and isn't binding. It merely says that, based on what you've told the lenders, they're ready to lend you the money -- and it states a ballpark amount you will be able to qualify for. Of course, they may change their mind, especially if you've misrepresented any information. There isn't any (or just minimal) background checking done with a pre-qualification letter.

Pre-approval is a bigger deal. It means the lender has checked out your employment and salary information, your credit record, your assets, and your debts. Many lenders don't charge for pre-approvals, but some do. Being pre-approved is even better than being pre-qualified when you begin house-hunting.

You can learn more about home buying in our Home Center -- we've even got some good deals on mortgage rates for you there. And drop by our Buying or Selling a Home discussion board, too -- where folks will be happy to answer your questions. We're currently offering a free trial of our entire discussion board community.

To learn more about investing Foolishly, visit our Fool's School and our Investing Basics area. Or check out some of our inexpensive and well-regarded online how-to guides (which feature money-back guarantees). You can also learn all about brokerages and find one that's right for you in our Broker Center. (Did you know that some well-regarded brokerages are offering commissions as low as $5?)

Finally, check out these mortgage-related articles: