Refinery29 is proud to partner with the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) to share real women’s stories about finding, buying, flipping, and paying off their homes. Ahead, read one woman’s testament to homeownership, and discover the power of a REALTOR®.
Editor’s note: We recognize that every individual's financial journey to home ownership is unique -- there is no one-size-fits-all narrative. So, in place of prescriptive advice or guidance, we're providing transparency into the process by way of one real woman's authentic experience.
To say that I didn’t imagine buying my first house at the tender age of 23 would be an understatement. At the time, home-buying had always felt impossibly grown up, like taking out a life insurance policy or writing a will — something I wouldn’t have to worry about until well into the nebulous future. But then I met Dianne.
We were at an engagement shower, the two of us sitting on the floor and sipping mimosas, the most unlikely conversational partners in the room. She was a 60-something single mom, who had raised two children and was tastefully draped in shawls, while I was one of the youngest people present. I was living with my parents while preparing to move from Los Angeles to Austin for graduate school, and I had never so much as considered wearing a shawl in public.
“You should buy a house,” said Dianne, when I told her about my grad school plans. “It’s what I did when I was your age. Every woman should have a house of her own.” She waved her long teal sleeve at me as she said this, and I was surprised by how plausible the idea suddenly seemed — in part, probably because of the mystical confidence imparted by her shawls. I had been living at home while nannying for several years, saving up money for what I assumed would be an expensive and underfunded grad school experience. Having secured a teaching scholarship, I suddenly had $20,000 in my account that I didn’t need for survival, but could it be used for a down payment? Maybe it wasn’t the craziest idea in the world. Dianne, seeing that I was intrigued, pushed again. “All you need is a good real estate agent,” she said. “Fortunately for you, I know just the gal.” And that is how I met Kate, my real estate guru (and a member of the National Association of REALTORS®).
I knew Kate was a good fit from the moment we spoke on the phone. I was still in Los Angeles when Kate asked me questions about my finances. I told her that I was worried about not qualifying for a mortgage since I’d be working a contract-based teaching job while in grad school. The only way I’d be able to cover my monthly payments was if I got a house where I could have roommates — which meant I’d have a few months, at least, of living beyond my means and racking up credit card debt while I got what was sure to be a fixer-upper in working order. But as it turned out, Kate had done the exact same thing, taking on housing debt while she was also taking out student loans, and slowly paying off both at once. She got her start in real estate at 22, by buying a house in the town where she attended college — which spurred her career as a full-fledged real estate broker. And if Kate could do it, maybe I, with my big dreams and modest budget, could, too.
Settling into Austin was a slow and lonesome process, even without the added pressures of a real estate search. I left my boyfriend, my family, and all my friends behind, beginning a new life in a new city all on my own. I crashed with a friend’s grandmother while juggling grad school classes and my TA job, and I spent evenings scanning the website Kate had given me access to, which listed available Austin properties in my price range. There were two things I wanted more than anything else: a space of my own to write in, and a chance at building stability. Buying a house seemed like a way to bolster myself while the shaky prospect of making a living as a writer lay ahead of me. Sure, this was a city where I lacked roots, but I thought this could be the beginning of a new life. Whatever else happened, I thought, I’d have a chance at independence if I had a place to call my own.
It was tough going at first. Everything that was available was either hopelessly beat up (I distinctly remember one house with no walls or floor beyond some tamped-down dirt) or hours away from the parts of the city I frequented.
Kate and I texted back and forth, making plans and comparing notes on available properties. She encouraged me to consider my priorities. How important was a good neighborhood to me? Being close to my burgeoning network of friends? We discussed my options, how much non-DIY repair I could afford (short answer: not a lot), and how much I was able to do myself. I spent a lot of time thinking about the sacrifices I’d have to make to afford a place of my own. I volunteered at a farm once a week to get free vegetables, and cut down on grocery costs, and stuck to water when out at the bar with my grad school cohort. The yoga classes and readings hosted by the Austin library system became my favorite way to socialize for free. And then we found it.
Kate was so excited about the house that she called me at work twice, texting me to look at the map and call her back ASAP. I told her I was busy writing a paper, that I wouldn’t be able to come see the house until the next morning. But she insisted. She had found my house, she said, and it couldn’t wait. I threw my laptop and books into my backpack and raced out of my tiny basement office to meet her, my heart beating a million times faster than normal. Was I really about to walk into my future house?
I’ll be honest: It didn’t seem promising at first. While it was spacious and in an area I liked, most of the light fixtures had been removed, leaving bare bulbs glinting from the popcorn ceiling. There was a thick layer of grease coating every surface, from the beige tile floor to the strangely painted walls, each of which was coated in mismatched highlighter hues. But where I saw chaos, Kate saw potential. The walls could be repainted. The fixtures could be replaced. All the flaws were opportunities to improve, and, more to the point, the reason I could actually afford the place, just 10 minutes from downtown. With Kate’s support, I decided to go for it. We put in a bid, the entire balance of the savings account I had been slowly building up since my first middle school babysitting job. And the owners accepted. At age 23, I was officially a homeowner.
On my first night in the house, I walked from room to room, introducing myself. I bought ribs from the barbecue trailer on the corner and ate them sitting on the kitchen floor. For a moment, it felt like I was sitting inside the material manifestation of my years of hard work and frugality. Four walls and a roof, an island of stability to protect me from the uncertainty of the writing world. Later that night, Erin, my best friend and soon-to-be roommate, came over with her record player and a potted plant. We spun through the empty living room together hand in hand, dancing ecstatically until we collapsed in a giggling heap. I knew it would take a while for me to turn this place into something other people would recognize as livable. But already, this little house felt like mine.