Being a first-time home buyer is exciting . . . but nerve-wracking. And though searching for the perfect home is difficult, there are plenty of fun moments. The loan process itself? Not so fun. There’s an endless list of things to do, arcane terms to master, and personal information to provide.

The best thing you can do is to educate yourself, thereby building a mental road map of what to expect at each step along the way. To that end, we recently spoke to Ben Milam, vice president of mortgage lending at Guaranteed Rate in Naperville, Illinois. He offered the following broad overview of the five main stages that first-time home buyers will encounter as they prepare to finance that all-important first home purchase.

Step One “Get your home loan application underway early,” advises Ben. “Make sure you have your basic personal and financial information at hand when beginning your home loan application. Your credit score, current employment status, debt, and long-term financial goals will all be collected and discussed at this point in the mortgage process.”

Step Two Obtain a pre-approval. Ben notes it’s important not to mistake a pre-approval for a pre-qualification. “A home loan pre-approval is a mortgage company’s commitment to issue a home loan for a specific property. This will be based off your employment, credit, and debt information,” he adds.

Step Three “The third stage in the mortgage process will involve various documents, such as pay stubs, W2 forms, and bank statements, so please make sure you are as prepared and as organized for the smoothest and quickest experience,” Ben notes. While you may provide documents to your home loan expert at the beginning of the mortgage process, you may also be asked for additional information at any time during the process, depending on your home loan type and financial situation. Be prepared . . . and be patient!

Step Four Once all the documents have been gathered to your loan officer’s satisfaction, an “underwriter” will review your application. “The underwriter wants to make sure that the home and property are in good condition and that you’ll be able to repay your home loan,” says Ben.

Step Five This is the big one, according to Ben. You, the sellers, your home loan expert, and possibly your attorney will decide on a date for a closing. At closing, you’ll sign even more documents. Once complete, you’ll be handed your keys and will have successfully become a home owner!