SALT LAKE CITY — For most real estate shoppers, buying a home is an exercise in compromise. The pleasant neighborhood comes with a long commute. The lower mortgage equals a smaller house.

For parents of school-age children, complications multiply as the search for an affordable home is weighed against the desire to enroll children in top-quality schools. The dilemma's solution is different for every family.

Paying more for a home where children can attend a great public school can be wiser than spending that money on private school tuition, according to the MOVOTO real estate blog.

A family with two children could afford an extra $5,000 per month or more to put toward mortgage payments by forgoing the cost of a top-notch private school (above $30,000 per year), according to MOVOTO's informal comparison.

However, families sometimes pay more than they can afford to live in neighborhoods where they believe their children will get a good public education, according to Great Schools, a clearinghouse for data on private and public schools in the United States. Homebuyers should be asking themselves some hard questions:

"Would you spend $50K simply for access to better schools — how about $100K or even $200K?" Great Schools asks. "Should you buy, say, a smaller home in a better school district to fend off private school bills? And will it break the bank if your public school turns out to be a disappointment?"

The questions pit two versions of the American dream against each other, Great Schools said: home ownership, or giving your children a better education by renting a small apartment near a good school.

Families must make their choices based on dozens of factors unique to them.

There are ways to live within the boundaries of a high-ranking school without busting the family budget, according to a Forbes magazine report, especially for families that can re-locate. The magazine analyzed school test data for 17,589 towns and cities in 49 states and found some surprises.

Forbes' score for schools in the middle-class town of Falmouth, Maine, "outshone [those] of big-dollar school districts like Manhattan Beach, Calif., and New Canaan, Conn., both of which have median house prices above $1.1 million yet scored sixth and 19th, respectively, on an absolute scale," the report said. "In fact, towns with homes costing between $200,000 to $399,000 represented a sweet spot in the list, grabbing more schools in the Top Ten than any other grouping," according to the Forbes' story, which included tables for finding America's best school districts at best real estate value.

Factoring good schools into real estate decisions can put parents in a quandary. Great Schools suggests that families consider the following:

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  • Do you love the school, or its test scores? Do your homework.
  • Will you be happy in the community? If parents don’t feel at home, it’s hard on the kids, too.
  • Can you really afford the house? Foreclosure probably trumps the trauma of a mediocre school.
  • Calculate your priorities: Do your children need their own bathroom, or a great teacher?
  • Private school tuition cannot be written off taxes, but property taxes and mortgage interest can.
  • Homes can be leveraged for equity lines to pay for college, so they may provide important financial support for future educational needs.