Looking to invest in property. What should my first steps be? Should I get preapproved for a loan, get a realtor?

Looking to invest in property. What should my first steps be? Should I get preapproved for a loan, get a realtor?

There are many ways to approach this. From your question I am assuming you are a first time investor. There are many aspects to consider and whomever you go to for advice, the quality of the advice will be tied to the quality of the person giving it. Among the issues to consider are:
  1. Is this the right kind of investment for you and do you have the resources for it? If you need help in this area it can come from a financial professional or your CPA, etc. You want to be sure that among all your investment choices real estate is right for you. This can vary quite a bit depending on your overall financial picture, your tax situation, your risk tolerance and more.
  2. For a real estate investment where you buy is very important. Buying out of your home area has additional risks and you should understand what those are. They are generally related to property management, but also involve getting educated about the market you are investing in. Some of that information can be found online and the right real estate professional can be invaluable in helping you here.
  3. You can also be doing research and educating yourself about owning property as an investment and learning how to evaluate income and expenses and determining the rate of return that such an investment can produce. While real estate can be an excellent investment, it is often oversold and advertising can be misleading. Claims for “cash flow” often turn out to be untrue or overstated. Learning how this is really calculated will help you evaluate properties when you look at them.  Again the right realtor can be a help in this.
  4. Once you are clear about all of the above you can get “pre-approved” . I do not agree with the idea that realtors won’t talk to you if you are not pre-approved. Perhaps this is true for some but I certainly believe that all clients at least deserve an introduction and consultation. Once you are ready to move forward, then being pre-approved is essential. There is nothing wrong with getting this done as early as possible. It also may help you determine if you are ready to make this kind of investment. A good mortgage person can also help educate you on the kinds of loans available for investment-rental property. These loans are different than the ones for homes that are a principal residence.
As a starting point I have an article on investment property you can read.
 
When choosing a realtor, be sure to find someone who works with investment property. It would be a plus if the agent is also an active successful investor, so they have the experience and background to help. 
 
Sonoma County has many good reasons to select it as a place to invest, but like any market you can make good and bad choices within it. A few years ago Las Vegas was oversold as an investor’s dream. Many of those investments turned into huge losses due to overbuilding and an even bigger collapse of the market there as a result. So thorough research about the local economy, market conditions looking forward and back are essential.