A pre-approval lets homebuyers shop with certainty for a home in their price range. The problem is many homebuyers will “stretch” this pre-approval number. Pre-approved for a $300,000 mortgage? Then don't look at $325,000 homes.

QUESTION: I am a first-time homebuyer hoping to buy my first home this spring. What would you say is the biggest mistake first-time homebuyers make?

ANSWER: I think the biggest mistake many first-time homebuyers make is stretching.

By this, I mean putting all their money into a home – going right to the edge of what they can afford, dumping all of their savings into a down payment, depleting their rainy day funds and assuming a mortgage that leaves them little wiggle room.

It starts right at the beginning when many first-timers start looking for a home before talking to a lender to find out what they can afford. It continues after they get pre-approved. (Remember, pre-approved is different from being pre-qualified. Pre-qualified means only that a lender gives you a number it thinks you can afford after you fill out an application, often online, listing your income and debts. Pre-approved means the lender commits to lending you an amount after it actually reviews and verifies your income, credit score, debts, etc.)

A pre-approval lets homebuyers shop with certainty for a home in their price range. The problem is many homebuyers will “stretch” this pre-approval number. Pre-approved for a $300,000 mortgage? Then don’t look at $325,000 homes.

And even if the bank says you can afford a $300,000 mortgage, your actual circumstances may say otherwise. Do you have a baby on the way or in the not too distant future? Have a long commute? Need to trade cars next year? Want to buy a boat next year? Don’t stretch beyond what you can realistically afford or your lifestyle dictates.

Likewise, don’t dump all of your money into the home. Yes, a 20 percent down payment is ideal – no private mortgage insurance. But you can buy a home with less down, as little as 3 percent. I’m a big proponent of putting down as much as possible, but not to the extent of bankrupting yourself.

Everyone needs a rainy day fund – home owners probably more than most. There are going to be unexpected expenses. And as a homeowner, there are going to be maintenance, upkeep, lawn care, plowing, rubbish removal, etc., etc. that are all new to you as a first-timer that you need to plan and budget for.

In sum, don’t stretch beyond what you can comfortably afford. Buying a home should be a joyous experience, not a financial strain.

Linda Goodspeed is a longtime real estate writer and author of “In and out of Darkness.” Email her at: lrgoodspeed@comcast.net.