Renters in high-cost cities are often frustrated by the trap of paying a high rent that could cover a mortgage payment yet leaves them too strapped financially to save for a down payment.

For example, in D.C., the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city was $2,223 in April, according to Apartment List, a rental search platform. For a similar monthly payment of $2,264, that renter could buy a $400,000 home. The monthly payment is based on a 30-year fixed-rate loan at 3 percent with a 5 percent down payment ($20,000), according to a NerdWallet calculator. The payment includes principal and interest on the loan, homeowner’s insurance, property taxes and private mortgage insurance, but not a possible condo fee or homeowner association fee.

Potential buyers with a low income in comparison to the median income in their region have an especially difficult time becoming homeowners because of the difficulty of saving money. We asked Lauren Bringle, an accredited financial counselor with Self Financial, a financial-tech start-up with a mission to help people build their credit and savings, for advice for prospective buyers who face the obstacle of a lower income.

“According to a 2020 customer survey by Accion, 57 percent of Self customers said their top financial goal was to buy a house,” Bringle wrote in an email. “This topic is particularly relevant in the Black community, with 41 percent of Black Americans stating buying a house would be their top money goal if they had good credit, according to a survey by Wakefield Research and Self Financial.”

If having a low income inhibits your ability to save for a down payment, you may still have options to become a homeowner.

“Depending on the area you live in, your income, credit and other factors, you may qualify for assistance to buy a home,” Bringle wrote. “This assistance could include help with a down payment, first-time homebuyer options, lower credit score requirements, help with home repair costs and more.”

Bringle recommends the following steps if your goal is to become a homeowner and you have a low income:

1. Find out if you qualify as low income in your area. Some higher-cost areas like San Francisco may have higher income limits than other places, for example.

2. Check your credit health and get it in good shape before applying for a home loan. Your credit impacts the types of home loan programs you qualify for and the interest rates you pay for a mortgage. Pull a copy of your credit report at least six months before buying a home so you have time to build credit or correct errors as needed. If your credit needs a refresh, using an app like Self can allow you to build credit while saving for a down payment at the same time.

3. Check if there’s a difference between what a lender thinks you can afford to pay and what you can actually afford. To do this, get a rough estimate of what your monthly mortgage payment would be and start setting the money aside each month, including your current rent as part of this number.

While lenders review how much debt you owe compared to your income, they only look at debts listed on your credit report. Those debts don’t typically include things like utilities, medical bills, transportation, groceries and other necessities, so that may not be the most complete picture of your monthly spending. By setting aside the money now, you get to test your mortgage budget before you sign anything.

4. Look for unique homeowner’s assistance programs in your area that work for your history and goals. For example, veterans may qualify for VA loans or other housing-assistance programs. First-time home-buyer programs provide options for lower down payments. Agriculture Department loans provide qualified home buyers in rural areas with zero-down-payment loans. Nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity provide additional options for people who do not qualify for conventional financing.

“Don’t write home ownership off just because you have a low income,” Bringle wrote. “With the right tools, resources and assistance, you could still achieve your dream.”

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