Buying or selling a home for the first time is like learning to play chess. There are terms to master, skills to learn, strategies to grasp, competitors to outmaneuver. These home buying and selling tips can help you capitalize on strengths and play down weaknesses:

Buyers: Edge Out the Competition

Establish a price range. Use Redfin’s home-affordability calculator. This home buying tool considers not only your income and down payment but also total recurring monthly payments such as car payments, student loans, and credit card minimum payments.

Clean up your credit. If your credit reports are accurate, the home buying process is likely to go more smoothly. Read “Are Mortgages Now Harder or Easier to Get?" for more for information.

Get preapproved. Usually, that means a mortgage lender has checked your credit reports and determined how much it could lend you. It’s one step better than prequalification, in which a lender just gives you an idea of what you can afford. Lenders use different terminology, though, so make sure you ask for clarification. For instance, EverBank, based in Jacksonville, Fla., uses the term “preapproval” for what other banks define as prequalification. And what most banks call a “pre­approval,” EverBank terms a “credit only approval.”

Sweeten the deal. Cash offers or large down payments get attention in a competitive bidding situation when you're buying a home. But other considerations, such as flexibility with the closing date and shorter inspection periods, can sway sellers.

Shop for mortgages. Online sites such as Bankrate and HSH make it easy to find a variety of lenders. Investigate several. Find local credit unions at New standardized loan estimates mandated by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should make it easy to compare terms.  

Sellers: Put Your Best Square Footage Forward

Get the best deal from your broker. The traditional 5 to 6 percent sales commission isn’t carved in stone. Our 2015 survey of real estate brokers found that 63 percent negotiated their fees at least half the time. Almost half of agents charged 4 percent or less. An agent may be more amenable if you’ve sent him or her referrals, or have done some legwork, says Lee Williams, an agent with Level Group, a New York City residential brokerage firm. That might involve obtaining property surveys, original floor plans, or tax records.

Fix the big things. Prior to listing your home, get inspections for roof damage, termites, and other hidden concerns, says Aaron Drucker, a Redfin Realtor based in Miami. Make sure certificates of occupancy are in order.

Declutter, depersonalize. Remove family mementos from the main living areas. Clear surfaces of daily detritus. Clean out closets, too. “Overstuffed closets, no matter how large, give the impression of a lack of storage,” says Christine Lutz, director of residential brokerage for Kinzie Brokerage, based in Chicago. Taking those simple, cost-free steps could add 3 percent to a home’s value, according to Bree Al-Rashid, a managing broker for Redfin in Seattle. For an edge, hire a home stager. Prices vary, but a 2-hour consultation can cost about $300.

Post lots of images. A survey last year by Zillow found that listings with fewer than nine photos were 20 percent less likely to sell within 60 days than those with 22 to 27 photos. More than that, the study found, didn’t help much.

Get squeaky clean. Shampoo rugs, change burnt-out lightbulbs, replace broken switch plates and outlets, and exorcise pet odors, recommends Ann Ferguson, a New York City broker with Klara Madlin Real Estate.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.