Could a renter cover your mortgage payment?

Orange condo building

When I was in my 20s (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth), I lived in an expensive college town on the East Coast in a little apartment that my mother referred to as "that hole."

When the rent finally rose beyond what seemed reasonable even in that environment, I pulled together some savings and bought a condominium one town over.

I thought about all the usual stuff that people think about when they're buying a home.

Of particular importance: Could I afford to make the monthly mortgage payments and pay the insurance, the taxes, the utilities and the quarterly condominium association fees while also making routine repairs, a few surprise repairs and keeping myself in groceries?

One more factor also was important to me.

I wanted to be sure that, if for some reason I couldn't or didn't want to live there anymore, I could rent the place out for something in the neighborhood of my mortgage payment.

Flash-forward 16 years. I'm now married and living in another part of the country.

I also kept the condo, hired a property manager and installed tenants.

The amount they pay me every month covers the entire mortgage bill and most of the quarterly association payment. I'm out of pocket for the water and sewer bills, but those aren't very expensive.

In the meantime, someone else -- my renter -- is paying off my loan and building my equity.

In seven years, I'll pay off the loan.

I can sell the condo, move back into it or keep renting it, which would give me another income stream. I can borrow against it to pay our son's college expenses, then pay back that loan and still have rental income in our retirement.

My experience suggests that anyone who buys real estate should consider at least giving themselves the option of renting the place. Circumstances change, and the ability to flex with those changes can only help you.

Before you buy, run the numbers.

Find out how easily you might be able to rent your potential new home and what rent you might be able to generate.

Could a renter cover your home loan payment? If not, how far apart are the two numbers? Can you imagine making up the difference, remembering that someday the loan will be gone and you'll have the rental income?

While you're at it, find out what property managers charge in your area.

A property manager can give you a good idea of what kind of rent a home might fetch. Also search Craigslist and Zillow for similar properties.

When you get estimate ranges, believe the lower estimates. Property managers like to say that they can get you between this and that, but the higher value might exist only to tempt you to choose them.

Yes, being a landlord isn't for everyone.

Some people don't want the risk -- no tenant equals no money -- and others can't stomach the hassle of making repairs and background checks.

Some homes are easier to rent out than others. A two-bedroom condo, for example, is probably easier to rent out than a five-bedroom home with a pool and greenhouse.

Your neighborhood might be a very desirable place to live and have few other rentals -- an ideal situation.

Or your area might already be saturated with rentals just like yours, which could make it difficult to find good renters at a decent price.

Indeed, considering how much you could rent the house out for shouldn't be the most important thing you consider when you buy a home.

But it might nudge you toward one property or away from another.