This season will be my 3rd, so hopefully I can give you some newbie insight.
1) I was miserable in softer boots. Last season I bought some 32 TM Two's which are a medium stiff (7 out of 10) and I couldn't be happier. Softer boots make you work harder in my opinion, riding seems a lot easier in the new boots.
2) Everyone with BOA seems to like it. I went with a traditional boot because that's what I preferred, I can tie in 2 locations if I decide I want part of the boot a different tightness. And I like the simplicity of laces.
3) I don't think you should have any lift. I don't.
4) Go with whatever fits best, it seems like some brands and models are made for different shapes of feet. Definitely have them heat mold the liners, I heat molded my boots myself and they fit awesome.
You are on the right track for sure buying at a shop, I wasn't able to and got lucky picking the boots I did. Starting off with boots and then picking out bindings and board seems to be what most people recommend. I bought bindings at the end of last season because I found a good deal, and the last piece of the puzzle (board) is in the mail right now.
Demo a lot of boards and see what you like.