NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Hooking a good mortgage is one of the most important financial steps a consumer will ever make.

But who offers the better deal, banks or credit unions? A new survey says the choice is a tough one, but the better prepared you are, the easier the decision will be.

But first, how do consumers view credit unions and banks?

They may be underestimating the pervasiveness and financial health of credit unions, for one example.

According to the National Credit Union Association, membership in credit unions is rising and members' financial assets are climbing, too.

“Credit unions ended 2011 in a safer and stronger position than at the start of the year. During the fourth quarter and for the entire year, credit union savings and lending grew at healthy rates. Credit union membership also reached an historic high of 91.8 million on Dec. 31,” notes NCUA Board Chairman Debbie Matz in a statement on March 1. “Demonstrating the industry’s resilience, 2011 saw annual net income jump 41.2 percent to $6.4 billion. As a result, net worth grew 6.9 percent, reaching $98.4 billion, and the net worth ratio climbed from 10.06 percent to 10.23 percent.”

All told, there are 7,094 federally insured credit unions, the NCUA reports. As for banks, the slide into insolvency has slowed down in recent months.

Only 15 banks have closed up shop in 2012, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp’s list of failed banks, compared to 92 bank failures in 2011, and 152 toppled financial institutions in 2010. The FDIC also notes that the average loan balance was at its highest levels in four years.

With both banks and credit unions apparently growing healthier, consumers are starting to weigh in on which one they’d use to get a solid mortgage deal. In a survey out today from FreeScore.com, by a small percentage, consumers chose banks over credit unions, with one in three respondents saying they trust banks the most, while slightly less than one in three consumers favored credit unions in the all-important “trust” department.

Financial institutions with any ties to the federal government fared the worst in the survey, with only one in 10 survey participants preferring government lending institutions like Fannie Mae (Stock Quote: FNM) and Freddie Mac (Stock Quote: FRE).

Yet FreeScore.com adds that most mortgage consumers are unaware that both banks and credit unions sell most of their mortgage loans to Fannie or Freddie, and see the initial “point of contact” bank or credit union as the primary servicer of their mortgage.

Additionally, 22% of all survey respondents don’t even know their credit score when they approach a bank or financial institution for a mortgage loan.

That lack of preparation has to change for consumers to get the best mortgage deal, no matter which financial lender they choose.

“While trust of lenders is a factor, consumers must approach lenders prepared, says Carrie Coghill, director of consumer education for FreeScore.com. “It means knowing your credit scores before you seek a mortgage. Misinformation in your credit report can also impede your ability to secure a better rate. So, before you trust a lender, put trust in yourself first to know your financial situation.”

As the economy improves, mortgages will be even easier to come by.

But if the FreeScore.com study is accurate, what matters most is your level of preparedness in your mortgage campaign, and not whether you choose a bank or credit union.