You can own a home. Just make sure it doesn’t end up owning you. Yes, buying a home for the first time is an exciting, life-changing experience and there’s truth to all the selling points you hear: Markets are hot, interest rates are reasonable, and property can yield you a great return on your investment — if you stay financially disciplined.

But remember before you start looking that the real estate industry has developed various subtle techniques to get at your cash, for years to come. And it’s working like a dream: A recent report in Toronto Life Magazine said the average national overall household debt is 115.7 per cent of personal disposable income, up from 72 per cent 18 years ago.

It’s not hard to see why. Housing prices rise drastically as incomes either plateau or increase marginally, so you’re offered flexible no-money-down or 40-year mortgages to broaden your payment options. Low asking prices bait potential buyers who then chase a growing price tag as offers compete. Mortgage companies pre-approve for amounts far higher than can be reasonably repaid. Sale viewings cleverly disguise necessary renovations that could run tens of thousands of dollars.

According to Laurie Campbell, executive director of non-profit debt counselling service Credit Canada, many first-timers, egged on to “get in on the market while they can,” overextend the limit of what they can truly spend to get their ideal home and then pay dearly for it later on.

“I can’t give you an exact number, but I can tell you that it’s not uncommon among our clients,” she says of the necessity of counselling as a result of high mortgages. “A first-time homebuyer should treat their sale as exactly that: A first-time buy. If they don’t have a financial cushion, these people will be in fairly immediate trouble.”

While she notes, for the most part, professionals in the real estate industry do inform the public of purchasing perils, Campbell claims that based on what she hears from her organization’s cases, not enough of an effort is being made.

“They don’t do enough and I have serious concerns about that,” says Campbell. “For the most part, agents do their due diligence to educate, but I often hear of a first-time buyer getting convinced to get into a mortgage that they can’t afford. It’s important to remember that real estate agents do make commissions.”

So how do you avoid getting in over your head? Sandra Rinomato, real estate agent and host of HGTV show Property Virgins, says you need to do your homework before you even consider a house hunt.

“You need to know what you can afford right at the start before you look at even one property. If you can afford X, there’s no use looking at X plus $50,000,” says Rinomato. “You need to know what it’s going to cost you month to month and you have to clean up any credit issues you have, which could take a day or longer, even three months.”

Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? As a real estate agent, Rinomato understands the well-founded anxiety of the first-time buyer, but stresses education is the key.

“It’s OK to have fear. You’d be abnormal if you were spending $400,000 without blinking an eye,” she says. “It would be irresponsible of you not to educate yourself about a purchase that big.”

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