While many clients start out thinking they can find a home without the help of a Realtor, they often discover there there is great value in working with one.
Once you have gotten past searching on your own using websites that are often outdated, and you decide to hire someone to help and to represent your interests, 1) you can work with your Realtor to set up some automated searches and get some tools from them that will give you real time listing information. It only takes a couple times of finding the 'perfect' house, just to be told it is already sold (even though it doesn't say that online) to figure out that we have more reliable tools for you to use.
The next phase is 2) on-line screening. This is when you start to see patterns in terms of what kind of homes you like, neighborhoods that seem appealing and features that might make it on to your 'must have' and 'nice to have' lists.
After you have identified some homes that you would like to see, the next step is to 3) set up some appointments. One thing to note here is that most homes require some level of appointment. Even vacant homes often require the agent to schedule in advance (so that the owner doesn't unwittingly show up and so that they know who is in and out of their home). Providing a complete list, preferably 24 hours in advance of your showing time, is a TREMENDOUS help to your Realtor.
4) Tour your selected homes and enjoy the process! Take notes and pay attention to what features and locations resonate with you. If you don't find your home on the first trip out, this information will be invaluable for planning your next showing appointment.
The process (steps 1-4) can be repeated over and over until you find the house of your dreams (or at least one that works for you)!
It can be very tempting to just 'stop by' an open house or a new home builder. Please, please, please don't do that without first discussing it with your Realtor. Most Open House agents will honor your preexisting relationship (or they may not), but when it comes to New Homes, the rule is that your Realtor must be with you at the first visit, or they cannot represent you in the sale.
Buying a house can be a lot of fun, but it is rarely as easy as what you see on television. Understanding that it is a process, and you probably won't find your new home on the first weekend you decide to start looking will help you manage the process and, hopefully, enjoy it!