When I was studying in Prague during my senior year at the University of Washington, my mother texted me something unexpected. "I think you should buy a condo," she wrote. "If something happens to me, I want to make sure that you have a place to call home. It would give both of us some peace of mind."
I worked through school to build up my savings, but a down payment wasn't something I could afford on my own yet. My mom offered to help with that expense, though she warned me that any costs going forward would be my responsibility to handle.
Beyond the appeal of not needing to pack my life into boxes every few years and be at the mercy of lease dates, I was intrigued by the idea. This was a chance for me to put down roots and stay in Seattle.
I looked at my finances and the market: Rents in the city were on the rise and I had just signed a full-time job offer to be a writer and video producer at a tech company. Overall, buying a home, especially since I had the privilege of help, seemed like a decision that would be worth it. And, looking back, it's a decision I'm grateful I was able to make.
Here's what the process of becoming a homeowner looked like for me, and the biggest money lessons I learned from my experience.
My parents were immigrants from Pakistan and moved to America with a few hundred dollars to their names. When they arrived in the states to begin their medical residencies, they were essentially starting over. They always had to be careful with their money.
As physicians, they understood how quickly people's lives can change because of a health complication or diagnosis. Knowing this, they made sure to live below their means and build an emergency fund in case their finances ever drastically changed.
They wanted to make sure they were in the driver's seat when it came to their finances, and these were lessons they taught to me from an early age. That's why I've saved 10% of every single one of my paychecks since I started working at the age of 13.
It is also why I opened a Roth IRA shortly after purchasing my condo. I saw it as a two-pronged investment in my future. I wanted to have as much time on my side so compound interest could grow my money, even if there were times when I wasn't able to make regular contributions.
Video by Courtney Stith
The house-hunting process took three months from start to finish. I couldn't have become a homeowner without the promise of a full-time job that would cover a mortgage and homeowner association (HOA) dues. This gave me the peace of mind to purchase a condo while I was still in college because I knew exactly how much I'd be making once I started my first post-grad job.
I had the privilege of logistical and financial help from my family. My parents advised me every step of the way about how to structure my finances and how to understand the level of responsibility involved with being a homeowner. They even looked at some places for me when I was out of the country, and I ended up buying my place sight unseen. When my mother covered the six-figure down payment, she told me that it was the last financial contribution that she would make.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
I had a plan for covering my share of the costs. During college I worked three campus jobs and tried to save as much money as possible from scholarships and research grants for my thesis. Half of the money I had saved from two internships and the jobs became the emergency fund that would cover six months worth of expenses, including my mortgage, if I suddenly lost my job.
I used the other half of my savings to cover my mortgage payments for the nine months between closing on my condo and starting my full-time position. Thanks to a signing bonus I received a month into my job, I was able to put that amount I put toward the mortgage back into savings.
Once I started my job, I knew it was up to me to maintain a comprehensive budget to cover all of my bills while still adding to my savings.
I worked with a financial adviser, who encouraged me to put 20% of my monthly income into my 401(k) and Roth IRA so I can max out the employee match and maximum annual contribution. After taxes and those retirement contributions, 50% of my remaining monthly take-home pay goes toward my mortgage. My girlfriend pays rent to me that covers the cost of the HOA dues.
The rest of my income goes to cover essentials like groceries, and 10% of the remaining money from each paycheck goes into my emergency fund.
Video by Courtney Stith
I do my best to limit impulsive spending out of boredom or convenience, so minimal Postmates or Ubers for me, and I set clear long-term savings goals to be able to pay for things things that bring me the most joy like my plants, vacations, concerts, and a growing collection of prints and postcards from artists of color.
All of these strategies help me make decisions with my future self in mind, and I feel happier because of them, even if it means I'm taking two buses to get home after that concert.
I decided to stay in Seattle because it was close to my job, family, and community. And I chose an apartment over a house so I could build equity in a place where I wouldn't have to tackle big building maintenance projects, like repairing the roof, on my own.
I felt confident changing light bulbs and fixing appliances and that I could get help for in-home projects, like when my partner's parents pitched in when we re-painted our room. And when my fridge stopped working, I learned on the fly how to work with my insurance company to find someone to get it fixed. Few things have felt more like "adulting" than that experience.
As a queer woman in her early 20s, personal safety was another big factor in why I chose my current place. Building features like a private garage, electronic badges to open the doors and proximity to bus stops all make me feel safe walking home late at night or sleeping in my apartment alone, which is invaluable.
Video by David Fang
As we've weathered the pandemic and the volatility of the past year and a half, I've only become more grateful to have my home. I've had a place to work remotely and to build my side hustle business as a freelancer and writing consultant. I was also able to refinance my mortgage and lock in a 2.5% interest rate on my home loan during the summer of 2020.
Though if I had to do the whole process over again, I would choose an apartment without a rental cap for the building. As it stands, I wouldn't be able to rent out the place and move elsewhere if I happened to get a job offer in a different city. This is something I wish I had asked my real estate agent and the previous homeowner, which is why I would encourage you to make a list of non-negotiables for your dream home, whether it's designated parking, accessibility of bus lines, or proximity to your workplace or family members.
Ultimately, being a homeowner has helped me think more critically about where my money is going and my goals for the future. It has helped me prioritize bolstering my credit, saving for my emergency fund and my retirement.
If you are looking to buy property right now, in my experience, looking at the market, thinking about how you want to invest and build equity, and deciding how long you want to stay in one place for a long period of time are three key steps that can help you find your version of home.
Aleenah Ansari (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer, creative problem solver, and journalist at heart who strives to lift as she climbs. She is passionate about representation in the media, and loves talking about her favorite murals and why Seattle is her chosen home.
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