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The learning curve is steep when it comes to buying your first home.iStockphoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

There are few milestones more important for a couple than buying a home together, and the amount of research and paperwork involved can be daunting. That's what Nicole Simone and her partner Mike Wilson are discovering as they scour Toronto's west end for the perfect home.

Ms. Simone, a 25-year-old government worker, figures house hunting accounts for 90 per cent of what she and Mr. Wilson talk about these days.

"And if you don't just keep a good sense of humour about it, you're not going to get through it," she said.

The duo was disappointed to lose a bidding war for a house in the Etobicoke area of Toronto, but their quest continues.

"It just wasn't meant to be, so we kind of just have to let it go and keep in mind the kinds of things we liked about that place, and hopefully we find some things better and cheaper," Ms. Simone said.

The journey usually starts with a meeting at the bank to get a pre-approval for a mortgage, a that the pair took in October.

TD Canada Trust mortgage specialist Jessy Bilodeau says the lender sifts through a client's financial history before approving a loan so, if there are any skeletons in the closet, it's best to let them out right away. Clients should alert the mortgage specialist of possible issues before they meet so there's no surprises, she says.

"We can tell them what documents we're going to need, and they can bring them along with them to that first appointment."

No issues came up when Ms. Simone and Mr. Wilson had the money talk. They were aware Ms. Simone still carried a lot of student debt, and she was "pleasantly surprised" to find out how much Mr. Wilson had in his savings account.

"We're both very comfortable with sharing our finances," Mr. Wilson said.

It's not just the mortgage payments couples have to worry about, says Bill Briggs, a Re/Max broker-owner in Edmonton.

"A lot of them don't understand the cash commitments that are going to be necessary," he said.

Those may include a down payment, moving expenses, insurance, utilities, condo maintenance fees and taxes. Some repairs may be necessary as well and new owners usually want to do at least some redecorating and furnishing.

Vancouver-area Re/Max realtor Lynda Terborg recommends that first-time home buyers "practise" ahead of time.

Work out how much the mortgage and other expenses are going amount to and sock it away.

"It's going to be a little more than what you're paying now renting or living at home with mom and dad," she said.

For a double-income household, normally one of those incomes goes toward housing costs alone, Ms. Terborg said.

"You can follow that formula. It's a hard one to swallow, but that's the reality."

Couples may be gung-ho about shopping for properties as soon as they've lined up their mortgage, but Re/Max realtor Frank Rudge, based in Victoria, said it's important to have a long talk with an agent before the hunt begins.

He said he often tells clients not to rush, and also have a meeting to discuss their needs and interests.

"Let me help you make that right decision rather than 'I'm going to quickly sell you something before you go and buy from somebody else' and before you make a snap decision," he said.

There are some things a potential home buyer may not be aware of – like that some condo buildings have age restrictions, and may not be worth buying if starting a family is in the cards.

Real estate agents say it's also important to keep an open mind. Sometimes what people want going in to the process isn't what they wind up with.

Ms. Simone and Mr. Wilson, for instance, started looking at condos, but realized after a while that a house may give them more bang for their buck. They've also widened their target area, looking at parts of Etobicoke they hadn't in the beginning.

"I would argue we probably wasted a good three months on looking at condos. We've probably seen over 50 condos, and that was a whole waste of time – pretty much spending every Saturday going to see five or six condos," said Mr. Wilson, a 26-year-old who works at an engineering firm.

Their real estate agent – a woman who is only a few years older than them – has been a huge help, he said.

"I think she really can relate to us, as we're first-time home buyers. She knows what we're looking for and our expectations and our needs," Mr. Wilson said.

"I think being with a real estate agent that gets you is really key," added Ms. Simone. "And we lucked out."