Now that you’ve had almost a month to think about it, have you set your resolutions for the new year? If they don’t yet include real estate, you might consider how home ownership could be your smartest investment in 2016.

According the 2015 National Housing Pulse Survey from the National Association of Realtors®, a strong majority of Americans believe that buying a home is a solid financial decision, and most believe they could sell their current home for at least its initial purchase price. Additionally, more renters than ever are now thinking about purchasing a home, with 61% saying that owning a home is a priority.

Whether you’re looking to buy a home or sell one in the near future, there’s no time like the present to start strengthening your financial credentials and identifying professional partners who can assist you in achieving short- and long-term real estate investment goals.

Financial benefits of home ownership

Not only have national median existing-home sale prices increased 7.6% in 2015, but also last month’s price increase marks the 46th consecutive month of year-over-year gains. These figures prove that real estate remains a smart, stable investment. There are many positives that come with owning a home, including potential lower monthly payments, helpful tax deductions, real estate appreciation and impact on personal net worth. Stability, savings and the freedom to do what you want with your home are clear advantages, and financial benefits are available for both those who want to step up to a larger home or downsize, depending on life circumstances.

Improving your financial picture

The first step to owning a home is to get in good financial standing to qualify for a mortgage and position yourself as an ideal buyer or seller. This includes a variety of initiatives, such as increasing your credit score, debt-to-income ratio and overall savings. Here are some smart ways to prepare for a real estate transaction in 2016:

Make a budget: Use last year’s receipts to learn about your true spending habits and create a realistic household budget for 2016.

Reduce your debt: Try to reduce car loans, student debt and revolving credit card balances so they make up a smaller percentage of your net monthly income. While most home-loan lenders prefer to see the magic 36% total debt load (including 25-28% in mortgage), some conventional loan products will allow up to 45% total debt-to-income ratios and FHA products may even allow up to 55%. Be sure to consult with a mortgage professional to determine your best option.

Earn credit history: Lenders also like clean credit, and the more you can do to position yourself as a healthy credit risk, the better. Using a credit card is fine, but make sure you pay off monthly balances (along with other bills) on time.

Save up: Saving for a 20% down payment on a home will likely get you the best loan rate. However, there are many loan products available that have much lower down payment options, and a mortgage lender or Rize Homesource agent can help you understand the details. Whatever your circumstances, perhaps this is the year to look for a higher-paying job (which will also help your qualify for a home) or even add a second job or income to help your short-term goal of socking away down-payment funds.

Seeking professional help

Finding your dream home or selling an existing property to invest in something more suitable for your lifestyle is easier when you have some professional assistance. Prospective buyers can benefit from consulting with a tax advisor to make a clear financial plan and understand the possible tax advantages of home ownership. In addition, it’s important for homeowners to consult tax advisors in order to minimize potential tax pitfalls and penalties when selling a property.

Likewise, working with a qualified real estate agent can provide you with inside information on local properties, stronger negotiating power, better marketing outlets and wider home loan options, not to mention moral support through what is inevitably an emotional experience. At Rize Homesource, for example, our agents have been helping buyers and sellers get the most out of their home purchase or sale, while providing valuable local insight and streamlining the process.

While attitudes about the housing market have clearly improved in recent years, every prospective homebuyer or seller is in a unique financial position and place in life. Now’s the time to make a financial plan and find the right partner to help you take the next step toward owning the house you want—and deserve. How are you resolving to fulfill the dream of home ownership this year?

– by Niko Kambouris, Rize Homesource Realtor