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When you rent, your monthly housing costs are clear: They're on the checks you write to the landlord and the utility companies. Owning is a bit trickier. The basic mortgage cost is just the beginning; it simply covers your principal and your interest payments on the loan. But you'll need to add property tax and homeowners insurance, as well as upkeep and repair costs that renters don't have to worry about—plumbers and roofers and someone to shovel the snow.

Let's say you want to buy a $200,000 home and make a 20 percent down payment. That would leave you with a $160,000 mortgage. If you're a little tight on cash, then you might want to go for a 10/1 hybrid mortgage (more on this in a sec) that currently charges 5.8 percent interest. So, for the first ten years, your monthly mortgage would be $939. Add 40 percent, or about $375, to cover the day-to-day "extras," and your total monthly cost ends up in the vicinity of $1,314.

To test your readiness for ownership, open a savings account and each month deposit the difference between your current rent and the total cost of a mortgage plus extras (check the rates at EmigrantDirect.com, which tends to offer higher percentages). Using the preceding example, if you pay $1,000 in rent, deposit $314 in the savings account on the first of each month. If you can keep up with this routine for six months, then you can afford the extra cost of owning a home.