Before Sharenika Cummings bought a house, her biggest worry was proving her income and coming up with a down payment. The Atlanta-based author and freelancer had faced many personal obstacles, including a brief period of homelessness, which she thought would hold her back from buying a home.

“I was working, but the challenge was that I didn’t have enough on my tax return showing that I made enough money, and I was scared that I wasn’t going to get approved,” Cummings says.

At the time, Cummings was working at Tyler Perry Studios, and she found a real estate agent who gave her advice on funding her purchase. With some financial help from friends and family, Cummings came up with the down payment and moved within 30 days of finding her dream home.

While not all entrepreneurs have access to financial assistance from family like Cummings did, they often face similar obstacles in showing proof of a consistent income to qualify for a loan.

But experts say that self-employed buyers can still purchase a home by focusing on credit history, having a well-thought-out budget, and taking advantage of down payment assistance programs in their state.

Jas Mowgood has been self-employed on and off for the past ten years, and the California artist and marketing engineer recently bought a home in Long Beach. The process took about six months, including the search, bidding process, and mortgage approval. Mowgood advises entrepreneurs to start preparing for a home purchase by focusing on their credit score and getting their paperwork in order.

“If you’re self-employed, work on paying off debt, increasing your credit score, and working hard to show two years of self-employment income,” she says. “Start saving all your documents — employment information, tax returns, any income verification.”

Los Angeles-based real estate agent Amanda Allen has worked with many self-employed buyers, and advises them to be thorough about providing income verification.

“What sets self-employed borrowers apart from traditional borrowers is how they show income. Lenders will require two, sometimes three, years of tax returns instead of W’s and pay stubs. So make sure you’re filing your taxes,” Allen says.

Any homebuyer needs to consider their budget, but for those who are self employed, it’s especially important as income can fluctuate.

“Budget is a major step in any home purchase. I would never want my clients to rush into this process without having some idea of their spending habits. Sit down, make an expense report, evaluate where you can make adjustments, create a future income goal, and start setting a certain amount or percentage of your income away,” Allen says. “It’s not only for your down payment and closing costs, but it’s to see what monthly payment you can comfortably make as a mortgage. It’s not about how much you get approved for, but it’s how much you can afford.  Buying a home is one of the largest purchases someone will make and needs to come with realistic and attainable goals.”

For filmmaker Winnie Cheung, buying a home on a fluctuating income meant forgoing her dream of living in New York City, and instead moving to three hours north to Delhi, New York.

“As a lifelong New Yorker, the dream would obviously be to buy property in the city. While looking at places here, I quickly realized that I could not own here without being massively in debt,” Cheung says. “As a first generation immigrant and freelancer, the idea of being in debt without knowing how my income will fluctuate over the next 20 years was very scary to me. If you’re a creative person, you can get creative with how to own a home. Dream openly. Look everywhere.”

Getting creative about owning a home may also mean doing some research and reaching out for help. Buyers can look into first-time homebuyer programs in their state that may include help specifically for entrepreneurs.

“The great news is there are many options for self-employed borrowers. There are options with 5 percent to no money down and No Document Loan programs, providing you meet the requirements,” Allen says. “Depending on the reason for your purchase, some mortgage programs may not apply. The best advice is to sit down with your real estate agent and mortgage specialist to discuss the options that best fit your needs.”

Gig work isn’t going away anytime soon, and people who work outside of a 9 to 5 don’t have to give up on the dream of homeownership. To make the process smoother, self-employed homeowners should look for a real estate agent or mortgage broker who understands the unique circumstances of an entrepreneur.

“I love creatives and entrepreneurs! As one myself, I understand the hustle and also the frustrations that come with working for yourself,” Allen says. “If you’re ready to buy a home, take that first step by reaching out to a real estate professional. With planning and teamwork, you can find ways to meet your purchasing goals.”

 

CONTRIBUTOR: Mariette Williams is a freelance culture and travel writer, and her writing has appeared in Travel + Leisure, VICE, ESSENCE, Business Insider, and more. She lives in South Florida with her husband and two kids.