Pre-qualification is a lender's best guess estimate on what you can afford. But it's not a guarantee. Pre-approval on the other hand, is a firm commitment from your lender based on your actual finances. If you know what you want pre-approval can help ensure you get it.
Nothing compares to actually walking the neighborhood prior to buying a home in the community. Pounding the pavement will give you a clear image as to how noisy it is, the amount of traffic in the area and what your neighbors will be like.
Getting to know the locals will give you that insider scoop as to whether or not this is the type of neighborhood you want to live in.