The Start of a Dramatic Tale: Becoming a Millennial Homeowner in one of the Most Expensive Cities

I’m taking the moment to look back on a daunting process: in a few weeks, I will celebrate one year in my condo. The journey to becoming a homeowner was dramatic for me, long before filling out a mortgage application or even calculating my budget. I have since made my mortgage payments, jumped into a big career move, and, alarmingly (to me), the world didn’t stop turning.

A Year Before My Big Move

How people shop for and purchase homes has changed a lot in the past ten years. Many are choosing to skip the process altogether. And, even though I worked in the housing industry for many years, I didn’t know what it would take to become a homeowner myself. I spent more time figuring out my economic situation and educating myself on the process than I did in finding my home and the actual buying process. Having the help of several professionals served as a kind of therapy for my traumatized Millennial heart. So many people were devastated by the housing crisis, and I had seen that up close and personal. It didn’t make sense to me that everyone was encouraging me to jump into a similar situation. I understood they *thought* I made “good money” and I shouldn’t “waste” it on rent. But I also knew they weren’t me, and I was the one who would be on the hook if things went south.

Now, obviously, I decided to become a homeowner, but not for any of the reasons people thought I should be one. I’ll tell you what worked for me. But it is critical to know your personal situation before diving in yourself. This is definitely *not* advice for what you should or shouldn’t do. Do you boo! Do you.

First Things First: Rent is Not a Waste

Like many of my peers, I grew up in uncertain economic times. I do not have the same views as my parents had on the urgency to own property. It was not the top priority in my life. What was? My lifestyle, which I quite enjoyed. I love living in the city. I like walking to restaurants and shops in my neighborhood and meeting up with friends nearby. My enjoyment leads to my first argument: I do not believe that renting is a waste of money. It certainly allowed me to live the life I wanted to live in Washington, DC — and frankly, the freedom and flexibility to do what I wanted to do with my money while in my 20s. Living in a city like DC means a large chunk of your income is devoted to living expenses. Often, far beyond what the typical, 50–30–20 rule says. But after living in my last apartment for nearly five years, I started thinking about how my lifestyle was changing. Upgrading to a newer building in another part of town sounded great. I love city living and I don’t need a lot of space. I know the norm for most people is to move further out from a city center to get more space for your dollar. But more space was not my priority. Ensuring a short commute and living in the city center was.

I Might Need Therapy After the Great Recession

Working in the housing industry for nearly ten years exposed me to a lot of different avenues to owning a home. It also exposed me to the horrors that can come from owning. I traveled across the country (and back) countless times to help people who were in danger of foreclosure or who were already going through the process. It was devastating to witness. I am a sensitive Pisces and I can remember far too many tears shed in bathroom stalls after hearing about a life’s goal dissolving because of unpaid mortgage and lost jobs. Witnessing the agony of others was enough to keep me emotionally distant from the process for years.

It was only when I realized that paying rent in DC rivaled a mortgage payment that I reluctantly began my exploration into becoming a homeowner.

Dreaded Student Loans and Credit Cards

My first stop was to a certified housing counselor. She walked me through all the general steps of home buying and gave me several budgeting tips. This was the perfect first stop for me. Millennials — the Google Generation — know how to research the hell out of any topic. Sitting down one-on-one with Connie was the right time for me to ask all the “dumb questions” I had been thinking about. I quickly learned that I couldn’t manage student loans, credit card debt, and a mortgage. I needed to choose two. I sat down with my Grandfather, who has always been the family’s financial adviser. He set me up on the perfect old-school waterfall-technique payoff plan. It took me exactly 9 months to pay off thousands of dollars in nonsense credit card debt with his fool-proof plan.

A large chunk of Millennials have student loans, which leads us to believe we can’t take on an additional burden of a mortgage. For many of us, if we had to wait until we were debt-free to become homeowners, we would never make it. This is one of the biggest ways we differ from previous generations. The rule of thumb that made sense to me was to choose one type of debt and make sure it is in good standing. I chose to pay off my credit card debt and maintain my student loans.

Housing Finance Agency FTW

I randomly got wind of the DC Open Doors program offered through the DC Housing Finance Agency. The DC Open Doors program provides a financing program and down payment assistance for applicants. DC is a city full of young professionals from all over the country. They live in DC, make good salaries, and then (usually) eventually move back to wherever they came from to buy a home and set down roots. The qualifications for the program were fairly simple and easily attractive to this group: among other things, you need to have a “decent” credit score and purchase a home in DC. Unlike similar programs in a lot of other states, it wasn’t specifically designed for low-income families. It has a fairly high salary cap to qualify, which would appeal to a much larger audience, including those who assumed they had to move back to their hometown in order to own.

In the current environment, it is increasingly difficult for people to save up for a down payment and qualify for a mortgage, even with a good credit score and a great income. I was shocked when I put my information in an online mortgage calculator and discovered my monthly mortgage payments wouldn’t be much more than my current DC rent! Years ago, I believed I couldn’t afford to buy in DC, one of the most expensive cities in the country. As it turns out, rent is so high that a mortgage isn’t such a leap, even for my one-income household. After seeing the cost of a small condo in the city, along with the housing finance agency program, I could settle down. 

Although the idea of the “digital nomad” lifestyle is quite appealing to me, I have already lived in DC for ten years, so a few more couldn’t hurt.

Next up: How I turned finding a lender and a real estate agent into a professional job interview process.

Note: The #ReadySetHome series originally appeared on Fannie Mae’s consumer website, The Home Story.