When Stefanie Cates and her husband, George, were looking for a home in Sarasota, Florida, they were lucky enough to receive down payment assistance from the United Way. With that assistance came a requirement that they attend a homebuyer education course.

Both Stefanie and George work two jobs, but they found the eight hours they spent on a Saturday learning about the homebuying process well worth their time. "We got a lot of good information that got us able to buy a home," Stefanie Cates says. "We knew what to expect. … Also, it was nice to hear other people going through the same things."

If you get down payment assistance, you may be required to take a homebuyer education class. Some lenders may also require the class. But the courses are valuable for anyone preparing to buy a home. "Every person buying a home for the very first time should be required to take this class," says Sandee Rains, a financial education specialist in Tampa, Florida, with ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, a nonprofit organization that offers credit counseling and homebuyer education classes in seven states and refers other clients to partner agencies. "You don't know what you don't know."

Some homebuyer education classes are free, while others charge a small fee. Agencies often offer online classes in addition to in-person options. Lenders who require the classes want a certificate from a HUD-approved agency. If you consult a credit counseling agency, make sure the agency is a nonprofit accredited by theNational Foundation for Credit Counseling or theAssociation of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.

One of the most valuable aspects of the course is information about the homebuying and mortgage process. Among the topics covered are budgeting, credit, shopping for a mortgage, home inspections, insurance, how to work with a real estate agent and the closing process.

The classes are helpful to homebuyers of any income level, even those who have owned a home before, says Marietta Rodriguez, vice president of national homeownership programs and lending for NeighborWorks America, a national nonprofit focused on community development and homeownership. The organization works with local partners that provide pre-purchase counseling approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

She points to a recent NeighborWorks survey of 1,000 adults showing that "75 percent of Americans think the homebuying process is complicated, and it is." Plus, mortgage disclosure rules have changed in recent years, and technology istransforming how we search for a home.

Rodriguez advises prospective homebuyers to take the class as soon as they decide they want to buy a home rather than waiting until they've found a house and a lender. "The class will really help you determine how to shop for a home and how to shop for a mortgage," she says.

Taking a class before you apply for a mortgage can be especially valuable topeople who have credit problems or have never established credit. Armed with knowledge, the homebuyers are better able to explore mortgage options. "They know what questions to ask. They know what to expect," Rains says.

"If you go to a lender and you ask what the qualifying ratios are, that lender is going to go, 'Whoa, that person knows what he's talking about,'" Rains says. "We all know there are some lenders out there who kind of glaze over it."

Consulting with a financial counselor four to six months before you plan to start the homebuying process also can be beneficial. Stefanie and George Cates found out about the down payment assistance option because they were working with ClearPoint to improve their credit scores – another smart move that for prospective homebuyers.

"We just felt that if we had some advice, that would help us move the process along," Stefanie Cates says. She and her husband were able to raise their credit scores more than 100 points. The class helped them navigate the process, and they bought their first home three months ago.

"We actually were so excited to go to it," Stefanie Cates says. "Taking a class would be a great thing for anybody, especially if they've never owned a home before." They also now have knowledge they can share with their children, ages 5 to 21, when they are ready to buy homes.

Here are eight things you could learn from a first-time homebuyer class:

How credit scoring works. Your credit score will determine what loan terms you are offered, or if you qualify for a mortgage at all. If a couple is applying for the loan, the lower of the two individuals' scores will be used. If there are errors in your credit file, you can get those corrected and raise your score, but it takes time. You can also raise your score by paying off debts.

Why you need a home inspection. Most lenders don't require a home inspection, but it's a good idea to get one, at your expense, to find out if the home needs costly repairs. Once the inspection is done, the buyer can ask the seller to fix defects, give you a credit at closing to fix them or lower the price, though the seller may refuse to do any of those things.

How to work with a real estate agent . There is no cost for a buyer towork with a real estate agent, since the commission is usually paid by the seller. But you have to give the agent the right information if you want her to find you the right house.

How to conserve water and electricity. Your mortgage payment is only part of the cost of living in a house. You'll also have to pay for water, heating, cooling, trash collection and other utilities. Knowing how to conserve keeps some of those costs lower.

What costs you'll incur. Money for the down payment is not the only cash you'll need at closing. You will also need to pay for title insurance, closing fees, appraisal fee and probably at least a year's real estate taxes and homeowner insurance.

How to shop for a mortgage . Getting the loan is one of the most stressful parts of the process. You'll need to provide your lender with documentation of your income, your expenses, the source of your down payment and other financial data. Not all lenders offer the same loan programs, so it pays to shop around before you commit to one. How to take title to a property you're buying with another person. The best way to share ownership with another person varies by state. How you structure the title will determine, for example, whether you will inherit your partner's half of the home if he dies or if it will go to his relatives.

Where to find down payment assistance. Many municipalities offer programs that provide grants or loans for down payments, as well as other programs to help first-time homebuyers. A class may help you find programs to help you buy a home if the lack of a down payment is holding you back.