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Check online, and you can find any number of handy “how much house can I afford?” calculators. These calculators will take your income, monthly debt payments, and estimated homeowner expenses to figure out how much money a bank might loan you for a home.

The important thing to remember about these calculators – and sometimes the calculations that go into them – is that they’re telling you how much you can likely borrow, not necessarily how much you can comfortably afford.

And there can be a big difference!

For instance, most banks operate under the assumption that you’ll put up to 36% of your income towards debt – including your housing-related debt. And they also assume that you can spend up to 28% of your income on your house payment (usually including property taxes and insurance) alone.

But can you really afford to spend nearly 1/3 of your income on your house payment? If you’re like most people, probably not!

So how do you decide what kind of mortgage you can comfortably afford? Take these steps.

1. Run the Calculations

While the online calculators may estimate high, they’ll at least tell you about how much a bank would probably lend you. (Assuming, of course, that you have decent credit and enter the numbers into the calculator correctly.)

The number the calculator will give you isn’t the end-all-be-all, but it’s a place to start. For one thing, it’ll tell you your maximum monthly mortgage payment, and the maximum home loan you could get. Now it’s up to you to decide, within that limit, what a comfortable mortgage payment is for you.

[Editor’s Note: Your credit score can severely limit the amount of loan you can afford. That’s why it’s important to check your credit scores before you apply for a loan. You can do that for free using the Credit Report Card, a free tool that shows you two of your credit scores every month.]

2. Crunch the Numbers

Next, check out your budget. Create a pretend homeownership budget using your current income as a base.

See how much money you could set aside for a monthly mortgage payment. And be sure you include the added costs of homeownership – such as home repairs, routine maintenance, lawn care, etc. – in to this make-believe budget.

This will give you some idea of where you may need to cut spending or saving in order to afford a mortgage. And don’t cut your savings too deeply. You don’t want to wind up with a huge monthly mortgage payment that leaves no room for college or retirement savings.

3. Try It Out

The best way to figure out if you can really afford your ideal mortgage is to try it out for a few months. Basically, add to your rent payment whatever extra homeownership costs you’ve come up with in your fictional budget. Just save the extra money whenever you write your rent check.

For instance, say you pay $1,000 per month in rent, but you want to get a mortgage with a $1,500 monthly payment. For the next three to six months, every time you write a rent check, transfer an extra $500 into your savings account. If you really want to be realistic, transfer the money you allotted in your make believe budget for home maintenance and other homeownership-related costs, too.

If you can get through several months without having to take money back out of that savings account, then you’re ready for that mortgage.

4. Tweak It

What if you can’t save the extra $500+ each month for a few months in a row? Then you’re not ready for a $1,500 mortgage payment!

So see if you can make more budget cuts to afford the mortgage you want, or just apply for a smaller mortgage that would be comfortable for you.

Remember, just because a bank tells you that you can afford a certain mortgage payment or total mortgage amount doesn’t mean that this would be comfortable for you.

The bank doesn’t know about your retirement savings goals, daycare payments, or love of expensive wine. And if you need to take out a smaller mortgage to be comfortable with your monthly payments, go for it!

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