When looking to buy a house, most families put a stellar school district at the top of their list of non-negotiables. But be careful, says Yahoo! personal finance expert Laura Rowley. People pay more to live in high-ranked school districts, although the better value may actually be a less-expensive house in a lesser-ranked district. For one, ranking alone does not determine school quality. “When you compare schools, look at what different courses and enrichment are,” she advises, “not just test scores.” And she notes recent research showing that the difference between the best and next-best schools is negligible. Finally, remember that situations change. “Even if you do buy in the best district,” she says, “your kids may not end up there.” She cites recent cases in which so many parents flocked to particular districts, “ there’s now overcrowding-and rezoning,” Ultimately, she says, factoring in stress and time burdens of a mortgage that overstretches you. “you’re better off buying a house you can afford.”

From September 2010 issue of Better Homes and Gardens