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I agree that most of the sellers would be willing to pay closing costs. As far as when to start looking, that really depends. Some times it takes a long time to find the "perfect" house while sometimes it doesn't. I'd hate for you to find a house you love but not be able to move on it b/c you don't have the down payment. It would really depend on how long it would take to save up the rest, IMO.
Covering closing costs can always be negotiated when you make an offer. Depending on the type of loan you get (FHA vs conventional) there are maximum contributions allowed. In NC, we have a due diligence contract. That means that when you make an offer, there is a due digence date and then a closing date. You will have to have loan approval, have inspections, and make repair negotiations by that date in order for it to be a valid contract that can close. Typically that diligence period is thirty days, so it is often better to be able to have your down payment ready before your offer or shortly after so that the loan approval is a quick process. You should talk to your loan officer and real estate agent about it so they can give you specifics on the NJ contract process
You'll probably need earnest money down, which can go towards your down payment. I would wait until I have the money needed down to buy. there is no sense in getting your heart set on a home and then you can't get it due to money issues.....
I would wait to have the down payment first. If you find something you really fall in love with and aren't ready it may upset you. For now I would just look online to get a feel for what is out there but I wouldn't start visiting places until you are all set with everything. Plus you will need money for inspections, appraisal, etc.