Many military families seeking homes find themselves in competitive real-estate markets. Service members heading to installations near San Diego or Seattle, for instance, may see prices well above what they’re used to, and may need to put in bids in short order if a home catches their eye.

It’s one of the reasons behind the simple message Travis Winfield, a retired Navy command senior chief-turned-San Diego real estate professional, gives to his prospective clients, including many first-time buyers.

“The first piece of advice I give to anybody is to find a reputable lender who can give you a full pre-approval,” said Winfield, who left service in 2016. “There’s a difference between a pre-approval and a pre-qualification.”

It may seem like semantics, but it’s not: Heading into a competitive real estate market with a pre-qualification likely won’t get the job done. As one mortgage banker told Realtor.com, “I tell most people they can take that pre-qualification letter and throw it in the trash.”

That’s not to say pre-qualification doesn’t serve a purpose. Getting pre-qualified by a lender is a way to gauge how much you can afford to borrow. You provide financial details, and the lender provides an estimate: It’s a good way to get a ballpark figure for your housing search.

But it’s a bad way to enter into a bidding war, especially if other offers are from pre-approved buyers. Pre-approval includes a more thorough review of finances (credit reports, bank statements, pay stubs, and so on) and a specific loan amount. According to Winfield and a handful of other Realtors in high-demand markets, it’s a necessity for serious house-hunting.

It’s also a part of the process that can be completed in advance of high-stress, high-speed permanent change-of-station moves.

“We don’t have time to wait until Monday to get pre-approved,” said Cassandra Rowley, a sailor-turned-Realtor who specializes in first-time home-buyers and military families in the Seattle area. “Make sure that’s done. … Any pre-approval works, we just need to make sure you’re pre-approved for a mortgage.”

Ready to learn more about the process? Check out our VA Loan Center.