Improve your chances by: banking your own money while you search out down-payment assistance. Often it's location-based or tagged to a certain type of buyer, like first-timers, Tiffany says. So do an Internet search with the city name, then the county name, along with word combinations such as "down-payment assistance," "first-time homebuyers" and "homebuyer's assistance."

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In a buyer's market, you can also negotiate to have the seller pay a portion of the closing costs.

4. Build a healthy savings account

This is over and above your money for the down payment and closing. Your lender wants to see that you're not living paycheck to paycheck. If you have three to five months' worth of mortgage payments set aside, that makes you a much better loan candidate. And some lenders and backers, like the FHA, will give you a little more latitude on other factors if they see that you have a cash cushion.

That money will also help you with maintenance and repair issues that come up when you own a home. While repairs are sporadic, the bill for a new roof, water heater or other big-ticket item can hit suddenly and hard.

Improve your chances by: setting aside money every month. Plan to spend 2.5% to 3% of your home's value annually on upkeep, repairs and maintenance, says Joseph Gyourko, the chairman of the real-estate department at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. If you're buying a $250,000 home, aim to bank $520 to $625 per month.

5. Get preapproved for a mortgage

For serious home shoppers, "the No. 1 thing is they better have everything in order," says Dick Gaylord, a past president of the National Association of Realtors. That means that, before the real home shopping begins, you want to get financing in place, he says.

And the preapproval process is "much more extensive" than it was a few years ago, he says.

Bott agrees. "That documentation around income and assets is very essential, more so than in the last five years," she says.

Improve your chances by: getting financing in place "before you walk through the first house," Gaylord says. Otherwise, he says, "How do you know how much you can afford?"

6. Buy a house you like

If you're buying today for yourself and your family, you want a home that will make you happy for the next few years.

Gone are the days when you could count on a quick sale, Tiffany says. And depending on how much you put down, and how much you have to shell out to sell and relocate, short-term ownership can be a pretty expensive proposition.

Improve your chances by: stepping back, Gyourko says, and making certain "you like the house."

This article was reported by Dana Dratch for