In most American towns and cities, there are more would-be homebuyers than there are homes on the market. The housing inventory crunch in the U.S. right now is especially pronounced for smaller, less-expensive starter homes. And that means plenty of would-be first-time homebuyers are struggling to find a place to call their own.

The good news is that buying a home in a tight market isn’t impossible. Millions of Americans will become homeowners for the very first time this year. If you live in a tough market, here’s how to make yourself one of them.

Step One: Prepare

Make Sure Your Credit is in Good Shape

If you’re serious about being a homeowner, you have to be serious about your credit. Checking your credit reports from all three credit reporting bureaus is a must. If you’ve got credit issues, clear them up before you begin your home search in earnest. You don’t want to fall in love with a home only to discover that your roommate from five years ago didn’t pay the electric bill and it’s been goofing up your credit score for half a decade. (For tips on managing and understanding your credit, check out our Credit Series.)

Get Pre-Approved

In tight real estate markets, existing homeowners who want to move are often advised to sell their current homes first. That way, they can collect the cash and shop for a new home with money in the bank. And, as a bonus, if the homeowners have been in their existing home long enough, or if the value of their home has increased enough, it’s totally possible that folks who sell a home before shopping for a new one will be able to make an all-cash or nearly all-cash offer for their next home.

All cash offers are appealing to sellers, of course, because it removes any potential uncertainty about financing for the buyers. But if you’re shopping for your first home and you don’t happen to be sitting on six-figures, there’s not need to panic at the thought of all-cash competitive buyers. Needing financing to buy a home shouldn’t put you at a serious disadvantage, as long as you’re prepared. The best way to show sellers that financing shouldn’t be a concern? Get pre-approved for a mortgage in advance. Getting pre-approved for a mortgage before you look at homes is a good idea any time, but having that pre-approval letter in hand is absolutely essential in tight real estate markets.

Set a Budget

Getting pre-approved for a mortgage should also give you a clear picture of the maximum amount a lender will be willing to offer you for your mortgage. Your pre-approval letter will have a firm figure of which you know you won’t be able to borrow. That said, qualifying for a mortgage of a certain size doesn’t necessarily mean you should borrow the maximum. it’s also important to make a budget on your own for how much you’re comfortable spending. Remember: over the next few decades, there are plenty of other things you’ll need money for besides your mortgage.

Step Two: Focus

Understand the Difference Between Wants and Needs

Trying to find a home in a tight market isn’t easy. And that’s why it’s important to have a clear picture of what you really need in a home before you begin your home search. Think carefully about the absolutely essential functions your home needs to fill for you and your family. When considering size, focus less on raw square footage and more on enough space for x, y, and z. For location, ask yourself why you want a particular town or neighborhood: often, it’s worth considering similar or adjacent areas along with a target area for more options.

Think carefully about whether or not some of your must-haves are actually just strong-preferences. Knowing that you prefer hardwood floors to carpet is helpful, but remembering that you can change the flooring in the future if you need to is important, especially when there aren’t many available homes to choose from. You can remove ugly wallpaper in an afternoon. Hiring a contractor to update a bathroom is a bit of an ordeal, but it can be done. In fact, most things in a home can be changed or updated once you own the place.

Don’t Waste Time

In a tight market, it is always a good idea to be flexible, but not everything is negotiable. You can update paint colors or repave a driveway. You can’t change the size of the yard or the school district boundaries. Once you’ve nailed down your absolute essentials, don’t waste time looking at homes that don’t match your needs. Impatience and fatigue can wear on the most dedicated home hunters, but if you really need four bedrooms or are committed to keeping your kids in the same schools, be patient, and don’t waste time considering homes that won’t work for you and your family.

Stick to Your Budget

As a home search wears on, it can be tempting to move up past the upper limits of your budget to open up more options. If you’re unable to find a suitable home on the market in your area that works for your budget, you can of course take another look at your budget, and see if you can figure out ways to make a little bit of wiggle room—especially if your initial budget estimate was on the conservative side.

But for most of us, adjusting the budget upwards out of frustration is a risky move. Sticking to the budget even if it means waiting longer for the right home is usually a better move. Pre-approvals can be regenerated if need be, and a good real estate agent won’t push you into a home where the mortgage stretches your budget to the breaking point.

Step Three: Act Fast

Don’t Wait

If you find a home you like that meets your requirements, be ready to put in an offer immediately.

Yes, choosing The One a big decision. Yes, in an ideal world, you’d have time to visit the property multiple times and think about it for a few weeks. But in a really tight market, the fact of the matter is that if you snooze, you lose. While you’re mulling over your decision, other buyers can jump in a and beat you to the finish line. This is why it’s so important to have a clear understanding of what you’re looking for in a home before you start your home search: if you know what you need before you start looking, you’ll know with confidence when you’ve found it.

Start with Your Best Offer

No one wants to spend more money than they have to on anything, and certainly not anything as expensive as a new home. But in a real estate market where sellers receive multiple offers, putting in an offer less than you’re willing to pay for a home can mean you miss out: trying to leave yourself room to negotiate upwards by bidding low, to begin with, comes with the risk that the seller might simply accept a higher competing offer without giving you the chance to increase your offer amount.

Limit Contingencies

Perhaps your parents have stories about how they finagled landscaping or fresh shutters or new appliances as part of their home buying negotiation process years ago.  In down markets, it’s pretty common for buyers to ask for concessions from the seller. But if you live in an area that has more potential buyers than it has homes for sale, it’s a good idea to limit any contingencies in your offer to the absolute essentials. Remember: unless you’re buying brand new construction, the home you’re buying has been lived-in for some time. The home doesn’t need to be perfect to be perfect for you and your family. For inspections, you just want to make sure you’re getting a home without any secret, serious structural issues you weren’t able to see on your own. You can paint the kitchen or buy a store or fix a dripping faucet or swap out the outlet covers yourself if it means your offer is accepted over the offer of a more demanding buyer.

Ready to get the ball rolling? We can help you get pre-approved for your mortgage in just a few minutes.