How I Bought a Modern Bungalow on a Writer’s Budget

updated Oct 3, 2023
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(Image credit: Hayley Lawrence)

I’ve dreamed of owning my own home for as long as I can remember. Looking at real estate listings is a hobby for me, and house-hunting shows make me blissfully happy.

In reality, though? Buying a home just didn’t seem possible as a single woman in my 30s with a fluctuating income. But then again, I like a challenge. And I’ve always admired this quote from Alice in Wonderland: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

But despite a few challenges along the way, I did it! I found this little modern bungalow from 1928 (not the cute house pictured above) that seemed to be made for a writer. I fell in love with the place as soon as I walked through. It was filled with old-school charm like amazing coved ceilings, stained glass, all the original hardwood floors, and a magnificent built-in buffet. It had a completely renovated upstairs area, complete with a great master bedroom and bathroom, sitting area, and office space (aka my writer’s nook).

The icing on the cake was the sweet little covered porch with two writing rocking chairs. Yes, they let me keep them, and yes, I do write out there from time to time. I even added one of those “little free libraries” in the front of my house, so I can put children’s books out for others to borrow.

So how did I buy this modern bungalow? Here are the five biggest challenges I faced, along with how I tackled each one.

Challenge #1: I was on my own

It’s not that I was afraid of buying something by myself. After all, reports show that there are more single women homeowners compared to single men. However, when you buy on your own, you are completely, 100% responsible for that mortgage. You have no one to share the costs with or a safety net if you happen to lose your job or get in a pinch. This is scary, and it was a pretty big fear for me to overcome.

My solution? I researched rental rates in my Milwaukee neighborhood to make sure I wasn’t taking out a mortgage that was higher than what I could ask for in rent. My home of $192,000 would end up being around a $1,200 monthly mortgage after taxes and insurance. I knew I could rent out the 3-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot home for about $1,500 if needed, so I was covered. I’ve known other single friends to do this as well. Some even partially rent out their homes or use Airbnb to help pay for their mortgage.

Challenge #2: I had no idea what I was doing

You can watch all the home shows in the world, but when it comes down to it, you still need someone on your side. For me, having a good Realtor wasn’t enough. I wanted someone who could look at a home and really analyze it from the first viewing. I decided to work with this small business duo that had their own real estate and home renovation business. Since part of their business involved renovation, they had a different approach when it came to showing a home. Sure, we’d do the usual walkthrough and talk closet sizes and kitchen appliances, but they scrutinized the home for all those “other” things I didn’t have a clue about.

They also helped me understand curb appeal, resale value, future renovation options, etc. Every home-buying advice I’ve ever read has said that you have to find the right Realtor who is a match for you, and this was especially true for me.

(Image credit: Lauren Kolyn)

Challenge #3: I didn’t have a steady job

This is kind of a big one. When you have a fluctuating source of income, banks don’t really like that. I’m an author of more than 15 books, but trust me, that is not regular income. Some years, I barely make a few thousand bucks. During the time I bought my home, I was working as a freelancer on a contract basis. It was actually a regular gig, but in the eyes of the bank, I was a temporary employee. Despite having good credit, my mortgage person told me it would be a challenge. I did some research and asking around to other freelancers I knew, and they told me I needed to show that I would have regular income for the foreseeable future. I went to my contract employer and asked if they would write a couple of letters on my behalf, stating that I would have regular employment. They did! Once I was able to show a couple of month’s worth of income statements and I had the letters, I was good to go.

Challenge #4: I didn’t have 20% to put down

I had money in my savings, but I was terrified to wipe it out by putting 20% down on my house. Then I would really be in trouble if something unexpected happened. So instead, I put about 5% down, which in my case was around $9,000. I knew I’d be paying PMI insurance on my mortgage until I hit 20%, but keeping money is my savings was worth it to me. You do have to have decent credit for this to be an option, but there are other first-time homeowner programs worth looking at if you don’t have money to put down.

This is where having a really good mortgage person will go a long way. My tip is to find that great realtor first, and then ask them for a recommendation on a mortgage person. It might be tempting to just fill out an online inquiry and get someone randomly assigned to you. But you’ll have a much better experience if you find someone you really trust. This way, you know they’re really on your side.

Challenge #5: I wanted a renovated home, but I couldn’t afford it

I love home renovation shows as much as I love house hunting ones. Yet, I’m not really a very handy person. At the end of the day, I got my modern home by being ready. Any good realtor will tell you that the best homes go fast, and they are absolutely right. It turns out that lots of people like renovated homes. I found my sweet little bungalow within hours of it going on the market, and I viewed it and put an offer on it the same day. By being pre-approved, I was able to do this. And by working with a realtor who could really analyze a home in that first walkthrough, I had peace of mind and was ready to make an offer.

I know it can be intimidating to buy a home on your own, but it can definitely be done. Find that someone in your life who has done it and offer to buy them a cup of coffee. Chances are, they’ll give you valuable advice and be one of your biggest advocates along the way.

Apartment Therapy’s My First Home series puts the “real” in real estate. We asked people from all across the country and all walks of life to share their stories on how they made their first home purchase happen.

Re-edited from a post originally published 01.16.2018- LS