With all the choices in today's market, how do you go about finding the right home? It seems the more research you do, the more alternatives you discover - single family, city loft, town-home, zero lot line, condominium, duplexes and more.

It's important to visualize your needs and plan ahead. "Know what you want in a home, what's important to you, and what you can live without," suggests broker Robert Alvarez.

"Many of us start out with a champagne taste and a beer pocketbook, so it's important to be realistic. Where and what you buy will affect you for as long as you live in the house," says Alvarez.

It begins with getting your priorities in order before you start looking or even talk to a real estate professional. Alvarez says, "For first-time home buyers this is a new experience, so it's especially important to do your homework. If you currently own a home, you know exactly what's lacking. You may need another bedroom or bathroom, or a good school nearby."

One place to start is where you want to live. How close do you want to be to your job? Will public transportation be a factor or will you be driving your car? Alvarez suggests practicing the commute in rush hour before you make a commitment to a particular neighborhood. "A seemingly quiet road can transform into gridlock during peak hours," he cautions. Another factor is how you earn your living. " If your job requires a lot of reading or is quite stressful, public transportation may offer valuable time to sit quietly." suggests Alvarez.

People with children have other major considerations: school and safety. If you plan to send your children to private schools, you can live where you want assuming you can easily arrange transportation. If you are a public school supporter, visit the schools and look at the scores. But be sure to weigh your decision by comparing the tax structures of different school districts. A lavish public school system may indicate high local real estate taxes.

Obviously, lifestyle is an important consideration, so think carefully about the activities you enjoy. People who frequently dine out, go dancing and attend the theater are happiest in the city or a close-in suburb. For others, being near family or friends is a bigger consideration. "Think about what matters to you in your life and that of your family, so that the home you choose will be in close proximity to the things that matter most," advises Alvarez.

The style of your home can be qualified two ways - ambiance and maintenance. So ask yourself, how does the home I want make me feel? Country homes may be the rage in your area, but what if you are more of a loft-with-a-city-view sort of a person? Picture yourself performing your daily routine in the home of your dreams. Do you like breakfast on the patio? Dinner by a cozy fire? Do you see yourself entertaining others in small groups or big blow-outs? Where do you like to watch TV? What are the children's needs? Do they need a playroom? Separate rooms? A large back yard? Do you have pets or plan to acquire one? Questions like these will give you food for thought that will help you eliminate homes that don't fit your lifestyle.

For those who want more freedom and less maintenance, condos, zero lot line homes, and town-homes offer a wide range of choices. You will be turning over landscaping and repair chores to a homeowner's association, or a tenants' association. Just make sure the fees charged are within your budget and are worth the services and additional amenities (swimming pool, exercise room, security gate) that you are paying for.

Affordability can be a factor not only in the type of housing, but whether it's new or an existing home. Old houses often have fine woodwork or interesting nooks and crannies not normally found in new homes. They generally sit on landscaped lots with mature trees and grown bushes. New homes cost more, but you can make many more decisions on amenities, colors, carpeting and fixtures. "Make sure you're dealing with a reputable builder, and have an attorney review all documents," Alvarez says.

Selecting a real estate professional is an important first step in beginning your search. "Ask for personal recommendations to find an individual who is knowledgeable about the neighborhood and has access to the local Multiple Listing Service," advises Alvarez. "Make sure you feel confident about his or her knowledge and skills, and understand the business relationship that you have established between you."