This question is not so recent, but it comes up every day! A good rule of thumb is to work with a TEAM, find your agent and get some referrals for loan officers they work with (they will work closely throughout the process, so it's good for them to have a good relationship) or vice versa. Assume that your agent will want to know your buying power before showing homes to save you both time and potential heartache. Also, having a preapproval in place makes a seller see you as a stronger and more credible. Sometimes they won't even consider an offer without a letter of preapproval or a proof of funds from a financial institution. Recently some companies are offering a "Buyer Ready" program where the loan is completely ready to go and that is by far the strongest form of prequalification that you can get. Once your price point is determined, go for it! It's a great time to buy a home in central Florida and trust your agent! They want to assist you, because the bottom line is that they work hard to get you to the finish line.
While Zillow is a great place to start your search, the process of analyzing the market value of a home is a very complicated process, and since we are in a rising market, computer generated analysis will likely lag behind the actual market by weeks or months or more. Relying on one source for that information leaves out very relevant data, and your agent is able to pull data from many different sources. In central Florida most properties are selling within 10% of list at the very least unless the property is severely distressed. If your offer is much below that the seller may not even take it seriously. Assess your buying power and make the offer that is both reasonable and comfortable for you, but take care not to be unreasonably out of line, because you will lose the home you really want. And remember, it's not warfare! The seller wants to sell a home, you want to buy one, and the agents want to help facilitate it. If everyone understands the position of all parties and acts accordingly, it's MAGIC and deals get done!
A preapproval is not needed, but it may give you insight as to whether paying cash makes sense for you or whether you may want to keep that money moving along in a potentially more lucrative financial vehicle. Leveraging money can be a useful tool in the right circumstances. But often the value of the the peace of mind of having a home fully paid for outweighs the potential investment value. Consider looking at the situation both ways and determine which is best in your personal situation. A consultation with a financial planner might be an excellent move!
It's a very good question and the answer depends on your situation. Not everyone should tie up their funds in real estate, but quite often buying does make sense over renting. From what you've said, we should definitely consider the details for your particular situation and buying is likely to be a good move. It is such a good time to buy because of the incredibly low interest rates even if the inventory is low right now. Prices have not climbed too high yet, but they likely will be rising for awhile. Some "experts" say the Orlando market may soften, but with a 2.6 month supply of homes (6 months is considered equilibrium) there is still upward pressure on prices. If you are in a position to buy, waiting for the "perfect" time may have you waiting beyond it and regretting. You won't LOSE by buying now, and you might if you wait. It would be a blessing and a privilege to work for you, but if not me, then at least chose someone who has your best interest at heart. ALWAYS have buyer representation. Listing agents have their sellers interests in mind FIRST, and maneuvering the maze of the real estate market requires someone who knows you and your situation and truly cares.