Prospective home buyers are faced with a number of challenges, particularly in markets where local inventory may be tight and competition fierce. Given the rapid rates of price appreciation that marked many major metro markets throughout 2013 and into 2014, house hunters in such areas need every advantage they can gain.

Even if affordability isn't necessarily a concern, missing out on one of the few viable options in your area - either because you weren't quick enough or weren't certain about it - can be frustrating. Obviously, there are red flags that can't be ignored - such as a structural integrity issue that arises during a home inspection. Yet, in the especially competitive markets, being efficient and decisive are the only surefire ways to seal the deal. Here are a few other tips to gaining a leg up when competing with other buyers in a so-called seller's market.

  • Be sure to be pre-approved. You put yourself at an immediate disadvantage against other buyers if you're not organized, and one of the first steps toward that organization is getting a pre-approval letter from a reputable lender. Not only will you have a clear understanding of what kind of home you can afford, you'll also be ready to make a move when you find that perfect property.
  • Explore alternative search methods. Browsing online is a good start, but in the modern market, that doesn't necessarily put you ahead of your competitors. In addition to keeping tabs on what's listed on the Internet, you can stay ahead of the curve by monitoring "For Sale By Owner" and pre-market properties. A savvy real estate agent can also tip you off to pocket listings or withdrawn listings that have expired from the past year. The more you know about in advance, the more likely you are to be prepared to capitalize.
  • Invest in the team mentality. Ideally, your agent will not only have an innate knowledge of the neighborhood or school district within which you want to buy, but they'll also have a network of other professionals lined up to facilitate an efficient process for you. The best local real estate professionals work in unison with trusted title agents, home inspection services, marketing teams and lenders, simplifying the experience and putting you in position to make a move before other shoppers.
  • Stay on top. More than anything else, securing your dream home is a matter of making moves. Don't hesitate or procrastinate. Carve out time in your schedule to view homes you like at all costs, so that your options and chances for success are increased!