It's the single biggest purchase most people will make in their lives, so how best to prepare when buying a home?

Local real estate agents offered their essential house-hunting tips. Read this before heading to that first open house.

1. Do research

Drive and walk around prospective neighborhoods at night and during the day and get familiar with the market by searching real estate websites. "It can really give buyers an idea of what properties are actually listed at and what they're selling for," says Caitlin Hendrickson, a Long Island agent with online brokerage Redfin.

2. Figure out your wants and needs

Create a list of what you need and what you want in your new home and use it to evaluate each one you look at. Make sure you're on the same page with your significant other. "Develop an ongoing dialogue regarding your wish list, but remain open to suggestions," says Ruth Sansiviero, a broker with Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty in Huntington.

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3. Get your finances in order

Review all of your finances -- including what you spend on things like food, clothing and entertainment -- and work with a mortgage professional to determine your borrowing ability and get preapproved for a mortgage. Make sure you have cash for the down payment at the time the contract is signed. "Once you have a good idea of your finances and what you can afford, you can work with a Realtor to find homes and areas that fit within your price range," says LP Finn, director of corporate services for Coach Realtors.

Before closing, make sure you have documents such as W-2s and pay stubs in order and don't make any big purchases or take out any new lines of credit, Hendrickson says.

4. Choose an agent with a solid local network

Find an agent you're comfortable with, who has experience in the neighborhoods where you're looking to live, and make sure they're working for you -- not for the seller.

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Under New York State law, real estate agents have to disclose who they're working for. Clients need to sign what's called an Agency Disclosure Form, which states that they understand who their broker represents: the buyer, the seller or both. A buyer's agent "will work in the buyer's best interest to make sure they get a home that works for them and at the best price, and help the buyer avoid pitfalls and hidden dangers," says Carolyn Sullivan, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Massapequa Park.

Real estate websites often allow customers to rate and review agents. Make sure to use an agent you trust and allow him or her to guide you. "It may be that a house is priced over your price point, but the agent knows the motivation of the seller," Sansiviero says.

5. Hire a real estate attorney

Make sure to hire a real estate attorney to navigate the contract and other legal issues that may come up. "Usually by doing all of that, you're saying to the sellers that you're prepared and ready to go," Hendrickson says.