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It seems like a simple question: What is the most expensive home you can afford?

Nearly every mortgage lender offers a calculator on its Web site. Enter your income, your debts and your savings, and learn the top of your price range.

But the number on the screen may be misleading.

Input an income of $56,400, the average for the Charlotte area, and the estimates from some of the nation's largest lenders range from about $150,000 to more than $300,000, the Observer found in using the calculators last week.

At the high end of that scale, what the calculator calls affordable is far more than any financial expert says you should spend on a home. Shoppers who use the figure to guide their search risk buying a home they may not be able to afford.

Lenders, who make more money when people take larger loans, say the calculators are intended to offer broad estimates, not personalized advice. They emphasize that people should contact a lender to determine what they can afford.

Consumer advocates say people should also contact a third party.

"You need to get advice from someone who doesn't have a stake in the transaction," said Floyd Davis, the CEO of Community Link, a Charlotte nonprofit that counsels people on the home-buying process.

Setting a price range is often the first step in buying a home. And it's a smart one. Experts say people who skip that step can get in trouble by falling in love with a home they can't afford, then stretching for a loan so they can buy it anyway.

The Web site calculators offer an informal way to gauge your range before you start shopping. But calculators that return higher estimates may lead shoppers into the same problem of believing they can comfortably afford a home when in fact they would be stretching.

There is no golden formula for determining what is affordable; it depends on the individual. But studies show that as homeowners devote a higher share of income to debt payments, they face a progressively greater chance of defaulting on their loan and losing their home.

The estimates offered by online calculators are created in a two-step process.

First the calculator figures how much you can spend on housing each month, based on personal financial information you provide. Then the calculator figures how much of that payment goes toward principal, and how much is consumed by interest and other fees.

While the calculation of interest and fees is fairly constant, companies program their calculators with very different assumptions about how much of your income is safe to spend on housing costs.

Most conventional lenders cap spending on all debt payments at 36 percent of gross monthly income. That's the ratio used by most calculators, too, including a pair of widely used calculators from two third-party providers, Leadfusion Inc. of San Diego and KJE Financial Solutions of Minneapolis.

But a calculator offered by Citigroup, for example, assumes that people can spend 55 percent of their monthly income on debt payments.

"The calculator is designed to provide a basic projection of consumers' buying potential," Mark Rodgers, a Citigroup spokesman, said in an e-mail. "Our built-in debt-to-income ratio calculates the high end of affordability."

Wachovia Corp.'s calculator assumes people can spend more than 40 percent of their income on debt payments. A company spokeswoman said the calculator gave customers an accurate sense of how much Wachovia might lend them, and that feedback over its five-year existence was strongly positive.

Bank of America Corp. provides the Leadfusion calculator on its Web site.

People seeking guidance from a third party will find little help from the U.S. government.

The Web site of the Department of Housing and Urban Development refers surfers to a calculator that still assumes conventional loans require a down payment of at least 20 percent (They don't).

Fannie Mae, one of the quasi-governmental entities that purchases loans from lenders, offers a calculator that advises users they can afford monthly debt payments of up to 50 percent of their income.

That standard contrasts with Fannie Mae's own business practices. Historically, the company only purchased loans where lenders limited their customers' total debt payments to 36 percent of income. The reason is to reduce the risk of default.

Fannie Mae did not return calls for comment about the disparity.