December Buying Advice (© Moodboard/Corbis)

© Moodboard/Corbis

Sound advice is always a smart gift. In this holiday edition of Buying Advice, we've asked real-estate agents, investors and other housing pros around the country to give us their best tips for making a smart home purchase, and we've included a couple of our own favorites. (Bing: Checklist for first-time homebuyers)

We'll also review the latest housing statistics and what they mean for the fledgling real-estate recovery and look at 10 surprising factors that could cause your mortgage application to be rejected.

The top 10 buying tips
1. Create – and keep — a good credit score
. All lenders use a credit score to help them understand what kind of risk you would be as a borrower. Pull a copy of your credit history and FICO score. The better the score, the better the interest rate you will be offered. To get the best mortgage deals, you need a score above 760, says Ilyce R. Glink, publisher of ThinkGlink.com and author of "Buy, Close, Move In!" Once you have it there, don't jeopardize it with bad financial decisions. (For more on this, keep reading.)

2. Find a good agent. Don't just use a friend or family member, or someone you run into regularly at your kid's school. Do some research, says Melissa Anderson, an agent with Coldwell Banker Homestead Group in Harrisburg, Pa.

"The best advice is to look for a highly respected buyers agent," she says. Ask your family and friends for recommendations and then meet with several agents. "Find someone that you feel comfortable with, feel you can trust and that has experience in the areas you are searching for your home."

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Alicia Trevino, president and CEO of Century 21 Fine Homes & Estates in Dallas, also advises working with an agent who has a lot of experience with distressed properties, including short sales, as they make up a good portion of available homes.

Just be sure the agent sells real estate full time, so he can respond quickly. Ask the agent for the names of buyers he has helped in the past six months, Anderson says. If the agent can't come up with several, you should keep looking.

3.  Set a budget and get preapproved by a lender. "It is important to know what you can afford and what a comfortable monthly payment would be," says Dallas Croft of ERA Oakcrest Realty in Winchester, Va. Some homebuyers learn the hard way that they can qualify for more than they can comfortably afford to pay, says Amber Arwine, an online mortgage broker with Guaranteed Rate in Chicago. "Getting a preapproval before starting shopping for a home is also a must," she adds. That way, when you see a house you like, you're ready. And we do mean preapproved, which means submitting pay stubs and tax returns, not prequalified, which is more of a cursory estimate.

4. Check out the neighborhood just as carefully as you check out the house. "Once you find a house that you really like, drive by that house at several times during the day and during different days of the week to really gauge the type of neighborhood you are buying into," says Jennifer Darby Metzger, of ERA Justin Realty in Rutherford, N.J.

5. Be ready to pull the trigger when you see the perfect home. The supply of for-sale housing is limited in many parts of the country, and that means good houses go quickly.

Buyers need to be ready to sign when they see a keeper, which means having their financing in order, says Tony Geraci of Century 21 HomeStar in Highland Heights, Ohio. Likewise, don't "overnegotiate."

"Sometimes we're so busy worrying about getting a 'good deal' or negotiating small deal points that we miss the opportunity to buy the house we want," says Bill Lublin of Century 21 Advantage Gold in Philadelphia.

6. Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Spend the money on any and all inspections that are suggested in the primary home inspection -- and for heaven's sake, don't forget to get an inspection before you buy. Some buyers skip this step, because the house looks OK and because they figure they are getting a home warranty, so why worry? But often this doesn't cover all of the property's problems. "The amount you could end up spending in the long run because of a defect you didn't know about is far greater than the expense of having a professional come out and take a look before you buy," says Raylene Lewis of Century 21 Beal in College Station, Texas.

7.  Buy the cake, not the icing. You can change the paint, paper, carpet and fixtures fairly easily, but you can't readily change the home's layout, size of the rooms or location. Look past the cosmetics to the bones of the house. And think about resale. While a one-bedroom home may fit you just fine, how easy will it be to sell five years from now? Likewise, will that extremely busy street be a turn-off for others?

8.  Get on the same page with your spouse. So many times, couples have a hard time agreeing on a house because they're not exactly sure what they want, says Jessica Riffle Edwards of Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage in Wilmington, N.C. "Know your must-haves and would-like-to-haves early in the process," she says. Both spouses should sit down and make their own lists and then get together and see what they agree on and where they differ and talk this through. This will save a lot of time and arguments down the road.

9. Know the landscape. Once a home that looks interesting comes up on the multiple listing service, you and your agent need to do some research. How many homes are on the market in the blocks around it? How long have they been on the market? What condition are they in? What's in escrow? What have houses nearby sold for in the past 90 days? These questions will help buyers recognize a good deal when they see it, says Doug Clark of SpikeTV's reality show “Flip Men.”

10. Don't get emotional. Don't stretch your budget just because you love a home. Think like an investor and tell yourself, "There will be others out there for me." It's kind of like dating, Clark says: You need to know what else is available, rather than falling in love with the first one.

"We see more than 100 homes for every one we buy," he says.