As you've probably heard, today's market offers many opportunities for first-time home buyers. While shopping for your first home is an exciting time, it can also be a stressful experience as you navigate today's market.

Before you begin looking, make sure you're completely prepared and know what to expect. Work with a professional real estate agent who can help guide you through the following five steps:

Step 1: Take an honest look at your finances. Before you dive into the exciting part of home-buying - the search - make sure you have all your ducks in a row. Figuring out your finances and crunching some numbers will allow you to set a realistic budget.

Step 2:
Secure a loan. After you get your finances in order, talk to lenders and mortgage brokers to ensure you can secure a loan. Shop around to get the lowest interest and overall best deal possible and make sure you understand all the fees involved. Talk to your agent whose brokerage may have an in-house mortgage lender you can work with.

Step 3: Map out your criteria. Now that you have your funding in order, begin your search. With a plethora of online home-search tools at your fingertips, it's relatively easy to map out different types of homes and neighborhoods and find what is right for you. Make big decisions - like urban versus suburban settings, an estimated property size and neighborhood requirements - before you start to physically look at properties. This will save you time and money.

Step 4: Take notes. On your own and with the help of an agent, you've found some houses you're interested in looking at. Don't venture out without a pen, paper and camera. Keep track of important details by taking notes and pictures. Have a list of questions ready and scope out neighborhoods by driving around for a bit.

Step 5: Close the deal. If you've found a home you love, don't wait to make a move. I've seen many first-time buyers miss out on a home because they got cold feet and continued shopping around. Make an offer and be ready to negotiate. Once a deal has been made, thoroughly read the contract and make sure you understand everything before you sign. Then you will be ready to begin with the appraisal and home inspection process.