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Sticking to your budget is crucial when you're buying solo; in lean times, there's no partner to share the load. So the last thing you want to do is take on a whopping mortgage that has you in a deep sweat each month, wondering whether you'll be able to handle all your living costs. Do not listen to your mortgage broker, real-estate agent, or even your parents should they try to convince you to stretch into the biggest possible home. Instead, aim for a place you can afford with a mortgage that leaves you enough money each month to contribute to your company's 401(k), if there is a company match; a Roth IRA, if you're eligible; and an emergency cash fund that could cover up to eight months of living costs.

A nice way to keep costs in check is to buy a townhouse or a condominium apartment. They're typically less expensive than a single-family home, and you'll pay a separate monthly or quarterly fee, known as maintenance, that covers shared expenses such as the gardener, snow removal, and keeping common areas shipshape. One side benefit is that condos and townhouses often have close-knit communities; as a single woman, it can be very reassuring to know there are nearby neighbors you can rely on in a pinch. No wonder single women make up about 50 percent of all condo owners.

The no-stretch rule also holds true when you're ready to make an offer on a home. In the current market, it's common for multiple bids to be made on the same house. Please, do not lose your head and get caught in a bidding war: Before you place your first bid , write down the absolute amount you can afford and don't go a penny over. Don't be frustrated; be strategic. If bidding wars in your area typically send the sale price of a house 20 percent above the listed price, then limit your search to homes with starting prices equally below your target. That way, you'll have room to negotiate.