Thinking of making the biggest purchase of your lifetime? Take these steps to learn the market and organize your search.

1. Choose the area in which you want to live.

Or at least narrow it down. Once you've settled on your preferred neighborhoods, you can start your house search.

 2. Decide what your ideal house would look like.

now what you want before you start looking. Don't waste your time on houses that don't fit your needs and pocketbook.

 3. Visit Sunday open houses.

At first, your object is simply to get the feel of the market. Visit a wide variety of houses to develop your sense of what you can get for your money. Try to resist buying the first or second house you see!

 4. Check the classified ads.

Reading the classifieds regularly will not only help you learn the real estate market, but you'll also spot new listings and price reductions. And don't forget that many newspapers post their classifieds online.

 5. Take advantage of online listings.

Information from the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), which lists most houses for sale, is now available on many state and national real estate websites. For more information on a particular house, follow up with your agent or by calling the listing agent directly (or the owner, if it's a FSBO).

 6. Decide whether to work with a real estate salesperson.

While you can find many properties on your own, real estate agents and brokers normally have access to houses before they're opened to the public. They will also handle all of the paperwork for you -- a huge help, since every year the lawyers seem to come up with another form you need to sign. But they also charge a commission of 2-3%. This is paid by the seller, but it arguably raises the overall price.

 7. Enlist the help of personal contacts.

If you know people who live or work near where you want to buy, ask them to scout out local houses for sale. They may hear about something before it's been put on the market. You can also canvass neighborhoods, notifying every owner in the area of your interest (or hang a flyer on notice boards in laundromats and grocery stores).

 8. Look for properties being sold in probate or foreclosure.

Probate sales and auctions for foreclosed homes are advertised outside the normal listings. You may need the help of a specialized agent, but the lower price of the house may make it worth it (though many such houses are also in bad shape). Or if you're looking for a fixer-upper, try driving around neighborhoods and looking for rundown houses, then research the name of the owner (who may, for example, be an out-of-town landlord interested in unloading the place).

 9. Pace yourself.

Don't try to see more than five or six houses in an afternoon. Also, try to visit a few houses in the evening after work rather than spending your whole weekend hunting.

 10. Set up a folder on each house you're interested in.

Or use your computer to set up a simple database for each house, with columns for the street address and city, price, number of bedrooms and baths, and so on.