But he said you should look beyond their suggestions, also asking friends or relatives who recently purchased a home. Arrive at the lender's office well prepared. To streamline the process, there's no substitute for gathering key documents in advance of your meeting. Ideally, these should include recent pay stubs, your latest W-2s, and a couple of years' worth of federal tax returns, as well as bank and savings account statements. “They're necessary to help your lender set the upper limit on how much you can afford, a process known as ‘pre-approval,“' Gumbinger said. By providing these documents early, your lender can quickly calculate your top borrowing limit and assess your eligibility for various lending programs. Look into your credit standing to gain the best available mortgage rate. Under federal law, you're entitled to one free credit report each year from the three largest credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You can easily request these online (www.annualcreditreport.com). In addition to your credit reports, you'll want to access your credit scores. Such scores, which draw on data from the credit bureaus, seek to provide lenders with a quantitative measure of a person's credit risk. Most lenders still use the scoring method pioneered by FICO. In most cases, you'll need to pay a fee for your credit scores. One way to obtain them is through the FICO website: www.myfico.com. You can also receive credit scores through the three large credit bureaus. FICO scores range from 300 to 850 — the higher the score, the more likely you are to get the best available rate. As soon as you've chosen the home you want to buy, it's time to get serious about making your mortgage application. And with your credit scores in hand, you can readily begin the process of comparison shopping for rates. Gumbinger said you may wish to begin the rate-shopping process with the lender who tutored you on the basics. But he strongly suggested you extend your rate search beyond the first lender. He also recommends you consult community banks and credit unions. “Try to gather at least 10 to 12 rate quotes before you applying for a mortgage. But always remember you're not only shopping rates. You also want quality service,” Gumbinger said. To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.