Buying a house cannot happen without this being lined up first. Cash (your own or a loan) is the oxygen in a transaction and this is what every realtor worth their salt will tell you to shore-up first. Make sure there is a lender that pre-approves you and that any money you plan on using for a down payment or the transaction is in an account with your name. Also, it is EXPENSIVE TO BUY A HOME...many times You need to plan for closing costs, lender fees, and this is in addition to any downpayment you are considering.
2) Length of Stay
As a general rule I think that every homeowner should plan to live in the home they're buying for at least 5 years. Especially if you are only putting 0-3.5% down (FHA and USDA loans). The reason for this is that a lot of people believe that their house is their single biggest investment. As with any investment, the best rule of thumb is to buy and hold...an investment this big needs time to go up enough in price/pay down the loan. One thing a buyer doesn't often consider, is that when they go to sell a house it will be expensive. So, unless you get the "deal of the century", it is probably best to expect that the house will start paying you back after about 5 years. In a market like Sonora the housing move slowly in price (relative to large cities or HOT areas). Time is generally on your side.
3) Down Payment
Figure out up front what you want to put down. Is the number 0%, 3.5%, 20%, 40%? This matters, because you have to have the money plus some closing costs and once you are in contract you need to know where all this money is coming from. For example, if you are borrowing $10k from parents or an uncle, that needs to be known. Also, as mentioned above there will be more costs. Yes, it costs money to buy a house:)
4) Wants vs. Needs
I've noticed that as most great home searches begin, most people looking for a new home have a list of things they WANT, but this is quite different than what they NEED. The problem here is that a realtor can usually find everything that a buyer NEEDS within their price point. The problem is often trying to find everything they WANT within their price point. This is especially tricky in a small town with very limited inventory.
If you, as a buyer, can determine these differences early, it will be easy to give up some things that may not be available at your price point, or maybe don't even exist in the area you want to buy. An example might be someone who wants a huge yard but wants to live in downtown Sonora. Most homes there have no (or very little) yard because most homes are built on hills or small lots.
Yes...it matters. Consider everything, from re-sale potential to schools. You don't want to live in Pinecrest if you have kids going to Sonora High. You probably don't want to live in Jamestown if your kids are going to Summerville High (or you want them to). Also, proximity to job...that can be a big deal.
Location...Location...Location. A lot of buyers I know have grabbed a great deal only to realize the location is a real problem in the end because of the neighbors, traffic, lot, amenities, etc. Please be aware of EVERYTHING that you can and go into a purchase with eyes wide open. Too many times there is compromise on location for something like countertops. Not a great idea overall.
Tuolumne county is spread out- so location can be critical. Even I as a realtor did not think about location enough wen we purchased our new house. Moral of the story? My wife and I realized we like East Sonora better!
The moral of the story is be a buyer, but be informed. I hope this helps in your search for the perfect home in Sonora. Thanks for reading.