FAQ: How to buy a home when you’re a freelance writer

A writer owning a house—seems upside down, but it ain’t.
A writer owning a house—seems upside down, but it ain’t.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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The best reason for a writerly person to buy a house is probably “because you particularly wish it.” There may be other worth­while reasons, but none come readily to mind. I will not attempt to talk you into buying a house if you are having a perfectly good time renting; no one should yoke a mortgage around their neck because they feel guilty about not acting enough like the Greatest Generation. I purchased a home in 2015 myself, despite being both a millennial and a writer, and would like to take this opportunity to endorse the home-buying process heartily and with only a few reservations. I have assembled a ha’penny’s worth of questions a writer might ask during the home-buying process and answered them as gorgeously as possible.

The enpurchasement of a home, you have no doubt heard, strengthens the dollar both at home and abroad while striking fear into the hearts of America’s enemies, eliminates student loans and credit card debt, counteracts moral turpitude, brightens the complexion, and gladdens the eye. It also sticks it to every building manager who ever refused to return your security deposit even after you scrubbed the baseboards and provided documentation that the scuff marks in the front hallway were there when you moved in.

Having accomplished this task in under six months with a min­imum of anxiety, fewer than fifty e-mails, and a relatively compre­hensible closing process during which I received a complimentary cup of coffee, I now wish to share with you the lessons I learned along the way.

(The best financial advice I can ever give anyone, I think—if you take nothing else from my story, I hope you will remember this—is that whenever you are offered a free beverage, take it. How often in life is one presented with a drink without a bill? Informational interviews, AA meetings, some car dealerships, church, and nowhere. Whenever someone asks “Can I get you a drink?” say “Coffee would be great,” or the name of whatever drink you think would be great just then. They’re offering because they want to! You’re really not putting anyone out, you know, if you say yes to that fizzy water, and that way even if things don’t pan out during the meeting, at least you’re one La Croix can the richer for it. Life is stern and life is earnest and free drinks aren’t proffered every day. Take the coffee and ask if they have any real cream, not just the powdered Coffee-mate.)

But you’re a writer. How ever did you get enough money to buy a WHOLE HOUSE?

Anyone with a certain amount of money and the ability to sign documents can buy a house, probably. Which is to say: Get some money. If you live in Manhattan, you are going to need to assemble a vast pile of money. If you live in Eastern California, the vastness of the pile will be less. If you don’t have at least a certain pile of money, you’re not going to be able to get a house, at least not for a while. Acquire a pile of money through a combination of wages and savings—writing jobs, non-writing jobs, shrewd investments, generous and eccentric aunts, owning a company that pays you to write jokes about paintings in the public domain. If you believe personal finance blogs, the act of not buying a daily cup of coffee should enrich you enough to buy a home in about thirty years or so. I’ll wait.

What do I need to know in order to buy a home?

The first thing to bear in mind, of course, is that, despite the moan­ing about unforeseen costs and unexpected headaches one so often hears from homebuyers both incipient and fully ripe, being able to buy a home is a very lucky thing! You are about to stake out your very own claim on a corner of creation—a plot of something that belongs to you and to your name and to the people who may someday bear your name.

You will be able to buy signs that say things like Please Pick Up After Your Dog—House Elves Don’t Live Here and Smile! You’re on Camera and humorous mats for feet-wiping that introduce visitors to the fact that this house, is in fact, a nuthouse, and that while being crazy may not be a requirement for living here, it certainly helps. You will be able to begin sentences with “As a homeowner . . .” possibly while placing your thumbs through your suspenders. You will have the chance to build a lovely life in whatever direction you please. A vast new world is opening up for you!

You are still participating in the decadent, deeply compromised system of late-stage capitalism, which is less than ideal for many of us, but that cannot presently be helped.

But isn’t owning a home the worst kind of headache? Aren’t I dooming myself to a life of home repairs and grumbling at dinner with friends?

The most important thing to remember, I think, is that even though you are buying a home, it is not necessary to become the kind of person who deprecates their own unqualified good for­tune by saying things like, “It’s such a hassle! What a headache, home-buying, now that you can’t call your landlord to tuck you in at night and kiss your bills away! Good luck when your foundation slides off and your roof turns into a single mushroom, your house will be as a millstone round your neck, a constant tribulation and sorrow!” It is not inevitable that, whenever you happen to ascend a rung on the financial ladder, you must also increase your number of complaints.

What are the hidden costs of buying a house?

Ask anyone you know who has recently bought a home what the process is like, and you will almost invariably hear not “Well, I feel really excited to be building equity, and it’s wonderful to have a house that I can call my very own, and I’m enormously proud of the years I spent building good credit and setting aside money for a down payment,” but, “Oh, you won’t believe the hidden costs, the exploding sewer lines, the Tax Extractors who beat me nightly, this is tenfold worse than renting, my house brings me no pleasure and will serve only as my grave.”

There is, I think, a general tendency among the middle class and its various aspirants to smooth over any possible class anxiety by showily complaining about any good fortune. If someone has bought a nice new car, they are likely to offset any suggestion of bragging with “You wouldn’t believe the insurance rates, though.” If someone has bought a house while the rest of their friends struggle to make rent, or moves to a fancier neighborhood, they may seek to keep everyone from feeling jealous with “The walls leak gravy! I’m up all night sanding the fridge! Please don’t think that I think I’m doing better than you.”

It is for this same reason that ninety-eight percent of wealthy people refuse to acknowledge that they are rich, and will insist upon using “comfortable” or “we’re doing okay” instead. (Your mileage may vary. Perhaps everyone you know is a delightful braggart who takes great joy in proclaiming good fortune when they encounter it.) But there is no reason to pretend good fortune isn’t good for­tune. If you find it, be grateful! If it is possible for you to dispense it to others, do so, and do that with a right goodwill! If you haven’t any, I’m sorry and hope things turn around soon!

There are so many different ways of being a writer and having money that my advice is almost impossible to apply to the major­ity of us. There is such an enormous difference between being the kind of writer who has a steady full-time job and minimal debt and no student loans versus the kind of writer who goes without health insurance and can’t make rent and all the varieties of writer in between that generalities here are impossible. But it is import­ant to acknowledge the distinction between being broke and being poor. If you are in the position to put down a down payment on a home, however modest, you are probably doing better than ninety percent of writers, perhaps better than ninety percent of people! Allow yourself to experience gratitude for this.

Okay, but how much money do I actually need? Ballpark.

I don’t know that my mentioning numbers will be especially helpful to you on your journey. I live in a particularly expensive city in a particularly expensive state; I have often heard that one should spend no more than thirty percent of their monthly income on rent, and it has never failed to draw a grim, world-weary chuckle from me. Residents of the San Francisco Bay Area are routinely locked out of their homes by platinum-skinned dragons if they cannot produce their own weight in rubies, so any number I might suggest as a reasonable down payment might cause a practical-minded res­ident of, say, Oklahoma to weep blood.

It is more helpful, instead, to suggest choosing a mortgage before choosing a house. This way you will not run the risk of falling in love with a house you cannot afford, something I was cautioned against repeatedly as I looked for a home to buy. Do not allow yourself to love. Fill your heart with pitch and lime and vinegar, close it off from all things. This was quite good advice! There are thousands of homes, probably, that I could have been enormously happy in, and that would have been sensible choices for me. I had a specific price range in mind, a bright and sympathetic Realtor who knew what I wanted, and a fresh Google Document labeled “DIFFERENT HOUSES PROS AND CONS.” I came prepared. I was excited, because I knew it was a joy and a privilege to be in the position to buy my own house; I was patient, because I have an exceedingly docile temperament, and I was ca­pable of signing checks once I found a house that met the majority of my criteria, and that someone richer than me didn’t want more.

But what if someone richer than me makes an offer on the same house? I love this house. So much. It must be mine.

There is nothing to be done when someone with more money wants the same house as you. They will offer more money, and they will be accepted, and you will have to find someplace else. Hold everything loosely, for someday Death will take everything out of your hands.

Should I have the house inspected?

Of course; be reasonable. They don’t even let you buy a house with­out inspecting it first, I don’t think. Make sure it has, you know, floors and whatnot.

Should I hire a lawyer?

I cannot say! I didn’t, and I don’t believe I was cheated for it. But I may not know.

Should I look at comparable houses and find out whether or not the home I wish to buy is under- or overvalued?

Sure! Also, at some point, you’re going to have to pay taxes on the house. They’ll send you a note to remind you, just be sure to write it down so you don’t forget in the excitement of it all.

I bought a house! Now what do I do?

Live in your house and enjoy it! People much stupider than you, with far worse financial habits and less attractive hairstyles, have bought houses and lived to tell about it. The fridge might not work at first, and you might not realize where the water heater is, and maybe you’ll never make back your initial investment if you de­cide to sell eight years from now when the market has collapsed, but you’ll fill the house with televisions and snacks and pets and eventually you’ll put a whole life in it.