In 2008, my husband and I bought the least expensive house in the nicest neighborhood available in Tenafly, New Jersey. We’d just tied the knot and saw this as the perfect starter home for us to juggle shared, part-time custody of my new bonus daughter while I finalized the last classes of my law degree. Just a short commute into the heart of Manhattan and surrounded by beautiful homes, we were happy as a family of three in our cozy, two bedroom cottage.
Near our house was a hill, and if I pushed myself to run up it I not only got a damn good workout but also a dose of inspiration. On this hill there was a stunning house, and every time I ran by it I would think, “if I had the money, I’d buy that”. One day, after running by it hundreds of times with that same thought, I finally had enough of the dreaming. I looked up the stats on the house to figure out how to make owning an “estate” like that (it really wasn’t an estate, just a bigger house in our expensive neighborhood) a reality, and I was instantly deflated: $2.7M.
Sure, we’d landed a house in the same neighborhood as my dream estate, but our $350K investment was nothing in comparison to the multiple seven figures required for (what I’d since built up in my head as) the dream home to end all dream homes. I couldn’t get it out of my mind that my dream house was not only possible but also what we deserved, so I did what I do best: I started making a plan.
In 2015, my family and I packed up that two bedroom home and moved down to Greensboro, North Carolina, and by June 2018 we were moving into our brand new—built to our exact preferences—version of that very dream “estate” in Tenafly.
In the course of the years between identifying my dream home and actually landing it, I learned more than I could possibly have imagined about the process of buying (and building) a home, and I want to save you all the pain, heartache, and bullshit I put up with. Think of this as a 411 on how to claim your dream home as a woman entrepreneur—especially as a woman of color.
Warning: The experience of buying a dream home is going to challenge you. I can’t tell you the number of times I felt unworthy and like a failure in the process. Each time, I scraped myself back up off the floor and refused to lose. And while we are each responsible for how we feel, it’s incredibly challenging to stay high on Cloud 9 when facing an entire real estate system that is inherently built to be predatory and discriminatory. That is, unless you’ve read this 411 and are prepared to make your dream come true as the no-nonsense woman entrepreneur you are.
Before You Buy
Get Clear On Your Dream
Buying a home is one of the hallmarks of The American Dream, amIright? According to Forbes, 87% of surveyed consumers reported homeownership is part of their American dream. That stat (along with an Ipsos survey in which 86% of consumers agreed that homeownership is a dream come true) brings me to the traditional conclusion: owning a home is a marker for many Americans of success, happiness, and overall “arrival”.
You are worthy of this dream. Whether you’ve considered buying a house before or not, you are worthy of this dream. Whether your dream home is a penthouse apartment in a major metropolis with floor to ceiling panorama views or a mobile, tiny home, you are worthy of this dream. Whether you want to keep renting so you can live an unattached life or you want to own a home in the French countryside, you are worthy of this dream. You are worthy of both having this dream and making it a real estate reality.
Trust: the home I have now is not what I knew I wanted, right off the bat. The vision has shifted through the years, though my final property is pretty damn close to the Tenafly Estate on the Hill. There was one point I thought I wanted a home on tons of acreage—until I realized having neighbors close by is actually really important to me. I almost committed to a house that backed up to water, even though the thought of my kids playing outside and falling into that big ass beautiful lake kept me up at night. You almost don’t know what you do want until you realize the shit that can come with a home that you aren’t willing to put up with.
What’s your version of my “Tenafly Estate on the Hill”?
Drive and Daydream
Before you start working with a realtor—before you’ve even put together a budget or considered your finances—start looking at what’s out there. Drive around your city and consider different neighborhoods. Take note of different styles of homes and what appeals to you and what doesn’t. There’s an underlying belief that if you’re not serious or ready to buy a house tomorrow, you shouldn’t go looking. Bullshit.
I first noticed that Tenafly Estate on the Hill in 2014, and I didn’t move into my realized dream home for another 4 years. But that moment of looking up the price of the Tenafly Estate kicked off the pursuit of my dream. It let me know what kind of income I needed to make in order to get my dream home. It let me know what kind of lifestyle I would need to go with it. It gave me more information than a realtor could have at that point.
Go to open houses before you’re ready so you can hone in on exactly what you want. Driving around is GREAT—in fact, when I was stressed out, I used to get in the car with a giant cup of coffee and allow myself to daydream while exploring the neighborhoods I was considering.
I wanted to get a real feel for the hood and ask myself:
- Can I live here?
- Who actually lives here?
- Are there people of color? Confederate flags? What political signs are posted in the front yards?
- Do I see kids playing?
- What kinds of features does the neighborhood have? Water? A trail nearby?
And while I was doing that, I would Zillow myself through—looking at houses that were available and houses that weren’t, just to get an idea of what the homes I liked were actually valued at.
While driving around is key to the process, you also have to actually walk into the houses you’re considering. This is where open houses and home parades come into play—this helps you get even more realistic about what it’s going to cost you to get all the things on your wishlist, and also maybe add a few more things you didn’t even know you wanted.
How are the homes you like arranged? What’s the floorplan like? What kind of floorplans do you like? Where’s the washer/dryer? Is it in the basement, or is it right off your giant walk-in closet so you don’t even have to worry about trucking your laundry up and down stairs? Is there a pool? Do you want a pool? What does it feel like to stand in an open floor plan in new construction vs. an old house from 1859 that needs a ton of work?
Once you have an idea of what you want and feel you’re ready to start considering a down payment on your dream, it’s time to consider your finances.
Get Ahold of Your Budget
Typical finance advice: look at your income, look at your expenses, and find something you can afford. STOP! (Please.) The worst phrase you can utter in this entire process, especially while you’re in the process of fantasizing about your dream home, is: “I can’t afford that.” Stop using the word “afford”—it’s a useless word.
You’re an entrepreneur, and the only limit to your income is what you decide is your cap. Every single big move I’ve made in my business has been inspired by something I desperately wanted to have or do or become. What better to be your “why” than a dream home for you and your family? And I know I’m not alone in this—Denise Sheffield Thomas long dreamt of a rose farm, and when she saw a property come up that so perfectly matched her vision, she didn’t agonize about her budget or if she could afford it: she stayed in possibility, she figured out how much money she needed to make it happen, and she launched some epic shit in her business to get those coins.
When it comes to our dreams, we often don’t even know how much money we need to make it happen.
“Dreams and reality are opposites. Action synthesizes them.” ― Assata Shakur
When you realize what you want, you suddenly have the impetus to make it happen. So work backwards. Budget for your dream life. Launch what you need to launch. Raise the capital. Make it happen.
Back in 2008 when we moved into our two bedroom in Tenafly, I had no idea where we’d land ten years later. But that Tenafly Estate on the Hill inspired me to start getting really clear about what I wanted. I started with a note in my phone with the basic criteria for my dream home. I knew that a $1M house equated to a $5K per month mortgage (you can figure this out with a mortgage calculator). A 20% deposit meant I needed $200K in the bank. I knew how much I needed to increase my income in order to make this dream happen.
Ask yourself as you consider your dream home, “what will it take to get me into a home of that caliber?”
What’s the dream budget?
It’s not just about the house, right? That house is the realization of a certain lifestyle you crave for yourself.
Consider your dream…
- House (and mortgage)
- Car (and payment)
- Insurance for that car
- School for your kids
- Extracurriculars for your kids
- House cleaner
That $2.7M estate in Tenafly, New Jersey made me realize two things:
- As an entrepreneur with an online business, I could actually move and give myself an instant raise. In 2015, we left New Jersey and moved to Greensboro, North Carolina where the tax benefits and housing market were significantly better than in Tenafly. Do you need to be where you are to run your business and your life?
- Building my dream home could be way more valuable than purchasing existing real estate. With a $1M budget, this new construction was listed at $698K, leaving just a bit over $300K in my budget for fixtures, finishes, furnishings, and equipment. I was able to put an additional $30K out of pocket towards the finishes (like the big ass copper tub I get in every Friday night and the Italian marble countertops) rather than add those costs to the mortgage—and I got to select everything I wanted—lighting, counters, drawer pulls, cabinets, floors, paint colors, faucets, gorgeous copper bathtub, etc. etc. etc.
If you’re furnishing your dream home with dream furniture, too, you’ll want to budget about $100K per floor to get exactly what you want.
Now that you have the dream house vision super clear, and you know how much you need in order to make it happen, you need a dream team to help you make it happen.
Get Your Dream Home Squad Together
It is absolutely necessary that you find the people who are going to advocate for you and believe in your ability to buy your dream home.
You require a champion to broker the deal and an ally to set you up with a mortgage. As a woman—especially as a woman of color—to walk into the world of real estate, lending, and brokerage is to walk into a discriminatory, biased situation that can easily leave you feeling seen as unworthy of redeeming this American dream.
Your Realtor: The first realtor I worked with was a complete and total asshole. She wasn’t playing the long game, and she just wanted me to find a damn house already and get off her damn phone. The first house I was under contract for was brokered by her and ended up costing me $5K to walk away from. There were a lot of demands from the seller, and it turned out they were being represented by another broker in my realtor’s office. All in all they made it clear: I was unworthy, and the seller was who they were really favoring.
For whatever reason, more than likely the inherent bias I was facing, I forgot that what is true in business is true in real estate, too: never be afraid to fire motherfuckers and walk away, head held high.
Your real estate agent should serve as your trusted partner in this process, and it wasn’t until I found the agent that helped me land our current house that the real estate game went from painful and demoralizing to one of power and fun. (Yes, finding your dream house can be a fun undertaking.)
It makes sense that the person who is representing you and doing a large part of the speaking on your behalf be an extension of yourself and your experience. In my real estate agent, Deesha Sunnasee—shout out to the BEST agent in GSO—I found someone willing to play the long game who was also familiar with the bias I was going to face. Women face inherent bias on both sides of the real estate table—87.2% of women say that equal pay is the biggest challenge they face in the real estate industry—so working with a woman of color agent helped me build the confidence I needed to act like Rachel Fucking Rodgers.
When interviewing agents, look for someone who is willing to take you to a ton of properties to find precisely what you want. One of the first things Deesha said to me was that we were going to have to look at a lot of properties. After being rushed and shoved around, I knew this was exactly what I needed.
The Purchase Process
In a paper published by the Journal of Real Estate Economics and Finance, researchers dug into the mortgage offerings of Black and white Americans, and on average, the difference is a full 29%. BLACK AMERICANS ARE CHARGED, ON AVERAGE, TWENTY NINE PERCENT MORE THAN THEIR WHITE COUNTERPARTS—and it’s much worse when gender is thrown into the mix. The researchers concluded that Black women suffer the most from this inherent bias and discrimination.
How does this play out in hard numbers? A white man’s $200,000, 30-year mortgage with a 4.5% interest rate would cost a Black woman nearly $9,000 more.
It’s assumed that if you are a woman of color, you can’t be trusted. Throw into the mix that, as an entrepreneur you aren’t a W2 employee, and you’re immediately trusted even less. People are making decisions about you without even knowing you, and that is some serious bullshit.
Getting a Mortgage
Add a Lender to Your Squad: Finding a lender who’s comfortable working with an entrepreneur is necessary. The very first lender I went to was incredibly conventional and didn’t understand my non-W2 employee status. He inferred more than once that I was falsifying documents and that my business was a shell company for some underhanded dealings. “Bish, please. Have you even tried to Google me and research who I am? No? Okay, get off my phone then. Bye!”
Lenders are used to being the ones with the power and having the upper hand—after all, they get to choose to give you money or deny you. But you are not beholden to them. When considering lenders, put yourself in the driver’s seat. Just like finding a real estate agent, you deserve a lender who is going to support you and represent you well.
This is your dream home. This is your show.
Before committing to a lender, do your research:
- Get referrals, if you can.
- Ask the potential lender if they’re able to read a profit and loss statement and if they can put together a package that will represent you well in consideration of your mortgage loan.
- If a lender tries to make you feel less than, run.
- Have 20% down in your bank account, if possible. (Some mortgage programs may require less.)
- Tell them exactly what they ask you, and nothing extra. This is not the time to confess all of your past financial sins or share that you also pay your mother’s rent. The more you tell them, the more paperwork they want.
- Before they run your credit, make sure they’re the right lender for you. Every time your credit is run, it has the potential to lower your credit score. If you have the right lender, they can put together a holistic package that represents you and your finances in the best light. Again: your credit score is a way for a lender to make a decision about you before a conversation has been had.
While it seems like working with a lender should be all about the numbers, it isn’t. Mortgage lending is fueled by story and opinion, and as a woman of color, most people assumed I didn’t have money. Their loss.
Making an Offer
This is where your real estate agent really gets to flex her muscles and advocate for you. She’ll be able to work with you to craft an offer that takes your budget and the list price into consideration, and then she’ll negotiate like hell on your behalf.
I want to point out that in the process of finding my current dream home, I had not only one but two failed transactions. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t worthy of those properties or that I’m not of value, but in hindsight, neither of those properties was my dream home, and each of those failures helped me see more clearly the bias I was facing that is inherently built into our financial systems. (The mythical two headed beast of inherent gender and race bias is unsurprisingly real. #nooneisshocked)
However, if both sides of the deal can come to an agreement on price, you then go under contract. Don’t break out the champagne, yet.
Going Under Contract
Even if you make an offer, you can still walk away—please remember this because this is the period of time where shit can really hit the fan. The home you’ve determined is your dream home can quickly turn into an absolute nightmare after you enlist an inspector to go in and check things like the foundation, A/C, insulation, roof, etc.
Imagine you find an old home that’s a bit of a fixer upper. It looks like you just need to do a bit of cosmetic work to update it and maybe put another $100K into moving walls and redoing the kitchen—until you find out the attic is full of mold (and it’s permeated all of the duct work and A/C system), the house needs a whole new roof, and the insulation was never done properly (so all of the floors and ceilings need to be ripped out and all new ductwork installed). Suddenly you’ve got an additional $100K of work on your hands before you can even move in, and the seller agrees to pay for only $20K of the $100K of work. So $80k to work that is behind the walls.—you will never even SEE the fruits of your investment. Suddenly this dream home looks more like a money pit, and despite all the dreams you’d conjured of the life you’d build there, you run the hell away and don’t look back. #truestoryfromafriend
Typically you have 30-60 days under contract to get your own inspections done (never trust the seller’s inspections) and determine if what they say they’re selling on paper is actually true. Should you and the seller agree on all the conditions of the sale—BOOM! You’ve got your dream home, but again—not quite yet. Your not official official until the specified closing date.
Shortly after my first failed transaction, I found another house in the neighborhood I currently live. It wasn’t new construction (like my dream home ended up being), but I thought it was perfect. We had everything we needed to make the deal a reality, but the sellers wanted a fast close—within 30 days and right after the Christmas/New Year hustle.
On top of not being thrilled with closing immediately after the busy holiday season, I knew I’d have the exact amount of money I wanted to put as a down payment by February. The seller refused to push back the close two weeks from January to February of 2018, and, because I now had a realtor I trusted (who had also built up my confidence), I was able to tell them that they had a choice: either wait until February, or I was walking away.
They refused to push back two weeks, I got all my money back, and I ended up with my gorgeous new construction (built precisely to my wishes). The hardball sellers didn’t end up getting their home off the market until November of 2018. #ninemonthslaterbitches
Once You’re In the Home
Now that you’ve got the bones of your home, and you’ve preserved enough of the budget you established to make it look like the house of your dreams, it’s time to get into HGTV/Cribs zone. From curb appeal to the backyard to the interior, whether you bought an existing home or new construction: there’s likely to be a lot of work.
Because we ended up with new construction, I was able to choose every single detail of my new home’s architectural and finishing elements. On the plus side this meant no renovation was necessary. But this beautiful realization of my dream made it abundantly clear that my old furniture (from my tiny Tenafly house) wasn’t going to cut it in this 5,033 square foot house. Hiring a professional designer to create a cohesive, drool worthy flow for my entire home has elevated the result to “beyond my wildest dreams” status, and I’m not planning to go anywhere for a very long time.
Your dream home will likely require working with designers and contractors, in some capacity, and (you may see there’s a theme going for this entire rundown), when it comes down to construction:
- Don’t let people intimidate you, and
- Prepare for a very time consuming (but fun) process—double every single price the contractor gives you, and add 6 months to the project deadline.
This approach to realizing your dream home and buying it is an approach to life. I completely believe in you and your ability to make this happen for yourself.
Now it’s your turn. What is that place you’ve been dreaming of living for a long time?
How is this going to change your daily life?
Whenever you’re ready, here are two ways to work with me and my team to scale your business:
- Join the Million Dollar CEO Society, a curated Facebook group exclusively for women entrepreneurs making six-figures or more. Note, you must be earning at least $100k in annual revenue to join. Click here.
- Work with me and my team for 12 months to scale your six-figure business into a seven-figure business. Click here to book a call and apply to my Million Dollar Badass mastermind.