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In the city of Toronto, a couple with combined gross income of $120,000 can afford a house worth $657,563.

No, wait, it's actually $590,681. Or is it $736,450? The mortgage affordability calculators offered by banks – used in this example – differ somewhat in their methodology, but they have one important thing in common. They all show that first-time buyers don't have a hope of buying a detached house in Toronto without exceptionally good incomes and mega down payments. Don't even bother asking about Vancouver.

The average price for a detached house in the greater Toronto area was $848,999 in January, a strapping 18.5 per cent above the level of a year earlier. Semi-detached houses, townhouses and condos were more affordable, but also rising fast in price. Who can afford to buy in this market, and how are they paying?

For answers, let's use the example of a couple where one partner makes $70,000 and the other $50,000. With parental help, savings and money plundered from their registered retirement savings plans, this couple has put together an $85,000 down payment. That's 10 per cent of the average detached house in Toronto last month.

Household income of $120,000 is pretty good in Toronto, where median total household income can be estimated at $76,157 using 2013 Statistics Canada numbers and adjusting them to the 2016 level using recent inflation rates. It's particularly good for first-time buyers, who are likely to be millennials facing a job market where full-time, career-building jobs can be difficult to find.

But never mind that. Let's proceed with the $120,000 example because it's at least achievable in certain fields over the span of a few years in the work force. A recent study by the recruitment firm Lannick Group found that entry-level salaries for some tech and accounting jobs range from $46,500 to nearly $50,000.

Gauging house affordability using calculators offered by banks is bad personal finance because the point of these tools is to get people excited about home buying and not to save them from spending too much. So it's noteworthy to see these calculators essentially telling our $120,000 couple that they can't buy a detached Toronto-area detached house.

Real-life affordability is even worse than these calculators say. They typically ask users to supply their gross household income, expected monthly property taxes and heating costs and other debt payments. Also required are mortgage terms – we're using a five-year mortgage at 2.75 per cent in this example – and a down payment.

What they leave out includes the cost of house maintenance and upkeep – plumbers, electricians, roofers, foundation repair and much more. They also don't factor in the cost of daycare, which can be huge in Toronto. And they don't consider the impact on your household cash flow of saving a set amount of money every month (all of these factors are built into my own take on housing affordability, the Real Life Ratio.)

Bank affordability calculators do ask about other debts besides your mortgage. In our example, I included a $300-a-month car payment and that's it. The property tax amount used for each calculator was $400, while heating costs were pegged at $100. This brings us to another flaw in these tools – they leave out the monthly cost of electricity, water, Internet and mobile/landline phone service.

The analysis of bank-offered mortgage tools says you can't afford a detached house in Toronto with a solid income of $120,000 and a 10-per-cent down payment. This helps us understand who's able to buy a detached house in Toronto right now. You either need a big income as a first-time buyer, or a lot of parental help.

Still, let's imagine that this couple is desperate for house ownership, as so many are in this world of obsessional thinking about housing. They might hit up their parents for more money, save harder or find a way to borrow some down payment money. But when affordability is a borderline thing, the better approach is to pull back, keep renting and save some more. Buying precariously because you expect price gains is suspect thinking. One, housing has had a great run and could fall at some point. Two, the burden of affording a house is in the cost of day-to-day ownership much more than in the purchase.

It's okay to say you can't afford to buy a first home in Toronto, not to mention Vancouver. In fact, it's a sign you're good with money.

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