So now that you've got a rough dollar figure in mind of what you can afford, have some fun searching online and looking at houses. Sites like Zillow.com can be a great resource to look at houses for sale or see the price of houses sold in your area. I've been told though that the houses for sale data can be stale. Your best option is likely to find the website of a regional realtor. You can find these through simple searches, or the next time you are out driving around, look at those "For Sale" signs in front yards. They will always give an agent's name and his/her firm.
While we'll discuss serious budgeting a bit later, don't feel afraid to look 10% or 25% above your budget. While you may not be actually able to afford houses in these price ranges, i think they can add some real benefits. Firstly, it helps to understand what you can afford, and what you could potentially afford with a bit more saving. Good house now or great house in a year? Secondly, more expensive houses generally have better locations and better features. You will start to get a better sense of what types of houses you might like, how important your acreage is, what features you'd like in a house, and whether there are some locations deserve premium prices (or not). For this latter point, think about two identical houses across the street from each other that have a significant price difference. One could be in a much better school district, or one could have a much more significant assessment which leads to higher annual taxes. Maybe one is located on an exclusive street or subdivision. This kind of searching should help you flesh out what is most important to you.
You've heard it before and I'll give my support to it as well - location, location, location. When Pamela and I started our online searches, we were immediately attracted to houses that looked newer and had more features, regardless of their location. We were advised to think differently and I'm glad we did. There's a lot to be said for being in a good neighborhood - your neighbors will become your friends and the value of the surrounding homes will in part dictate the value of yours down the line. If you move into a less desireable neighborhood, maybe your loud neighbors become a nuisane and maybe if you do eventually sell, you'll find fewer buyers that want to move into that neighborhood. At the same time, we also looked at houses with the best location but dismissed them. We weren't interested in paying up to be part of a neighborhood or school district where you were paying for a name / address (think 5th Avenue in NYC). We also found that these locations attracted more affluent people but also charged significantly higher taxes. Your property taxes are much like your rent - it's money that is "thrown away" and in some areas, it can be significant.
So you've searched online and found some listings of homes that look nice and are within or near your budget. I would next suggest taking your search offline. Pamela and I printed out the one-pagers for dozens of homes, grouped them geographically, then did drive-bys. Each house for sale has a sign in the yard saying "For Sale" which makes them easy to find. We found this to be some of the best research work we did. You can likely see a lot of houses without spending a ton of time because they are often in similar neighborhoods.
While you won't be able to go into the houses, you can really learn a lot about the neighborhoods and even the outside appearance of the home. Don't forget, sellers upload pictures of their homes that frame them in the best light. They'll try to avoid a picture that shows their gem of a home is surrounded by slums or the photo that shows the front yard floods an is often a mud pit. All the pictures, both indoors and out, try to use perspective to make rooms and features larger than they are. Driving by the houses can help you put this all in your own perspective.
Now that you've perhaps figured out a few neighborhoods where you'd like to live and maybe even have a shorter list of houses you are really interested in, my next post will discuss the next steps you can take to Get Serious - Getting Pre-Qualified and Finding a Realtor.