starving artists should buy houses

I get the same call every year: “Emma, this is your realtor. Just want to say congratulations on the anniversary of you becoming a homeowner.”

The day I picked up my house keys for the first time, I drove alone to my new house, parked in my driveway and let myself inside. I walked through the empty rooms, ran my hands along the walls, opened all the cabinet doors, turned on all the lights.

Why did I buy a house? I was about to turn 22, I didn’t really have enough money, I hate spiders / mold / crawlspaces / dirt / mildew, and the house I bought was a total shitshow.

I bought a house because I wanted to be a starving artist. And starving artists should buy houses.

(Surprise, surprise: my “starving artist” plan didn’t pan out, and it’s hard to write about plans that didn’t pan out because then you have to explain why they didn’t pan out. That’s nobody’s idea of a good time. So today I’m going to just talk about why I bought a house, and maybe another day I’ll talk about why I gave up my career as a starving artist).

Here’s what happened:

– I went to school to study creative writing to be a playwright and a novelist.

– After graduation, I got a PR job and tried to juggle working full time with writing 2 hours a day. Didn’t work.

– I took a class with the extraordinary Hillary Rettig and realized that I had to devote more time / my life to writing. Everything else needed to come second. Quit my job, got a part time, work from home job. Started writing all the time.

– Quickly saw that I was never going to make a steady income (or even any income at all…) as a writer. If I wanted to survive, I needed to adjust my expenses. Moved in with my boyfriend’s parents, stopped going out, started saving 70% of my monthly income.

– Came up with the idea to move back home to Portland, buy a small house in a not-so-nice neighborhood, and live for free by renting out enough rooms to cover my mortgage and make a little money on the side.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Starving artists should buy houses.

If you want to pursue a life of creativity, and you are worried about a roof over your head, buying a house makes sense:

1. Big output in the beginning, smaller output at the end. When you’re young, it’s easier to hustle. Figure out what it’s going to take to save the down-payment for a modest house, and start squirreling away every penny. It’s going to be a rough few years, but you’ll get it back ten (a hundred? a thousand?) fold down the road.

2. Artists need to retire, too. And for people who aren’t going to put a lot towards their social security (and will that even exist when you retire?!), a house is a great way to fund a simple retirement. Having a nearly-free place to live in 30 years, and maybe a roommate to cover the bills, could be the difference between a comfortable, or terrible, retirement.

3. Grow your investment…with your art. Seriously, you’re a creative, wondering type. Put some of that into making your house beautiful, and totally liveable. If you are willing to do the grunt work, fixing up a fixer-upper can be an amazing way to gain appreciation (the financial kind, but also that of your friends and family), without putting in a penny (or many pennies…)

I’m not saying that buying a house is always a good idea for a starving artist. Here are some key factors:

1. Focus on roommate potential and rent-ability. This is the advice I give to everyone: always always always buy a house that you could rent for more than the mortgage payment. Bonus points if you can live in it and rent it to roommates who will cover your mortgage. When evaluating a house for rental potential, bedroom size, location, a hot job market, and amenities, all matter.

2. Go below budget. The first year you own a house, plan on spending $10K. There are things you can’t even imagine having to pay for if you don’t currently own a house: new roofs, rat infestations, foundational cracking, black mold, tree roots poking through sewer lines. Prepare yourself for battle and buy a house that is below what you can afford.

3. Look beneath the surface. Look at the first picture. THAT HOUSE IS A SHITSHOW. It’s a total wreck. And it was such a smart purchase. Because of an overflowing bathtub on the second floor, the kitchen ceiling needed repair, and that meant that nobody was interested in buying it. What was the cost of fixing it? $556 for drywall repairs. When we bought the house, we were told it needed over $15K of work. We spent $4K, worked every weekend for months, and within a year, the value of our house increased by $50K (results not typical…unless your city is plagued by portlandia inspired appreciation).

Don’t look at stainless steel appliances, bay windows, beautiful backyards, or paint colors. You can get all of that with your own two hands.

4. Leverage your relationships. I could not have bought a house without some serious help. Whatever you can get, use it: co-signers, a private loan from your family, help with fixing things up, a trustworthy realtor. A starving artist is on a mission to share their art with the world – don’t be afraid to ask for a little help.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: buying a house was the best decision I ever made, personal and financial.

And it can be for you too.