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Disability and chronic illness didn’t stop Tami from being a homeowner

chronic illness and disability

College can be a challenging time for young adults, but imagine attempting post-secondary education while dealing with disability and chronic illness. Tami Mitchell knows the feeling all too well. In 2009, after struggling to maintain both her health and stability on campus, she made the difficult choice to move back in with her parents to rest and regain her strength. Because of her conditions, Tami’s idea of planning for the future did not include homeownership. Staying with her parents changed that mindset.

How do you choose to buy over rent?

It took two whole years after moving back in with her parents for Tami to regain her wellness. The year was now 2011, and she was starting to notice her parents were becoming increasingly exasperated. Tami knew that both for her sanity and the sanity of her parents, there was only one thing to do. She needed to move out.

The hunt for the perfect apartment began, and it didn’t take long for Tami to realize how unaffordable rental prices were.

“Rent was $700 to $900, and far more than I could afford on my SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) income and small part-time wage,” says Tami. At the time, she was averaging $1,400 to $1,600 of income each month. In addition to the high rental prices, most places denied her because of the rent to income ratio rule-of-thumb, which states your income must be two and a half times your monthly rent.

What started as a hobby to pass the time, Tami began to look at the cost of buying a home over renting. To her astonishment, she quickly found that becoming a homeowner was a real possibility.

“It would cost me half as much as renting — even less than low income-percentage-based apartments,” says Tami. Now 2012, the market in Pierce County (the city she planned to buy in) was only starting to recover from the financial crisis of 2008, making it a convenient time to buy.

How does one go about starting the process of becoming a homeowner? 

unpacking in new home

Purchasing a home is no small feat, and it doesn’t stop after finding a picture-perfect picket fence or imagining what colour you’re going to paint the front door. It takes patience and a ton of preparation.

Tami began her year’s worth of research in 2011. She read every homebuying material she could find online and even attended free mortgage classes to understand better the process of buying a home.

Due to her specific situation, Tami knew that she needed to tailor her research toward programs that offered assistance for disabled people and low-income first-time home buyers. Not only did she need support financially, but because of her chronic illness, she also knew that she would have to find a home with little maintenance and upkeep to keep costs low.

“I didn’t want something that was beyond my ability to maintain, or if I needed to ask for help, was an overly large ask,” says Tami.  

The process of buying a home can be straining in more ways than one, especially when considering emotions. 

“It was a scary time,” says Tami “This was a large commitment, and I was worried that I would have a flare-up, or be ill and lose my house.” 

Due to this perpetual worry, Tami always leaned toward the lower end of what she knew she could manage and afford. 

She credits her “cheer squad” for being the ones who championed behind her as she went through the process. “Just having people saying, ‘You can do this’ makes a huge difference,” she says.  

It was February of 2012 when Tami spotted her dream home for the first time – a 500 square foot home listed at $100,000. The small house was, unfortunately, out of her price range. Tami remembers that at the time, the tiny house and minimalist movement weren’t massive, so the house sat on the market for quite some time. 

Tami chose to let it do just that — and it paid off in a big way. In only four months, the price of the home dropped from $100,000 to $67,000.

“I put in an offer,” says Tami. Unfortunately, so did someone else, and their offer won. Two months later, the close fell through, and Tami got a second chance. Elated, she accepted, and on August 1, 2012, she got the keys to her first home. 

Using impairments as advantages over setbacks

finding-a-way

The closing took nearly two months for a couple of critical reasons, but these reasons worked in favour of Tami to help provide her with the financial assistance she needed. 

The first being that Tami was able to use her county’s down-payment assistance program to cover her down-payment. This program meant that she was eligible for “a second mortgage loan of up to $24,900 to cover the cost of a down payment or closing costs on the purchase of a home within Pierce County.”

The second reason was that she was able to work with a lender that offered a $5,000 grant for low-income first-time home buyers.  

Five years later, and after making her house a home, Tami was fortunate enough to have $5,000 forgiven from her mortgage. Ultimately, Tami paid about $63,500 on her mortgage at 3.25% interest.

Her house was certainly liveable when she moved in, but Tami knew that both electrical upgrades and necessary plumbing were right around the corner. To tackle this, Tami aimed to do as much work herself, with the assistance of family and friends. 

Something she could never have planned, however, was a severe car accident only shortly after acquiring her new home. 

To this day, she still suffers casualties from the accident, but with the settlement, she was able to pay for both the rewiring and plumbing. 

“With a friend-of-the-family discount, I spent just over $10,000, and all the major things were done,” she explains. She has since made small repairs and updates by utilizing clearances sales, social media groups, and the labour of friends and family.  

Because of Tami’s peaks and pits with her chronic illness over the years, losing working wages were not uncommon. In the past seven and a half years, she’s lost her income four times, and sometimes three to six months at a time. This year, it’s been due to both surgeries and health issues. 

Through it all, Tami keeps positive by saying, “I’m still in my home!” 

Choosing to focus on the advantages of her situation, Tami was able to apply for her county’s disabled exemption. “My home’s value was frozen at its purchase price of $67,000 and remained so to this day, despite increased value.” 

Her property taxes dropped by roughly 85%, and by making extra payments when possible, Tami was able to reduce her monthly house payment to $340.

What do other single women need to know before they buy a home, especially those with chronic illness or disabilities?

Tami says, in no doubt, that there was an underlying expectation that you must be a couple to own a home. “It was a bit a shock when it came time to sign the papers to see my name, and in bold writing: a single woman, over and over again,” she explains. 

It wasn’t that anyone Tami interacted with treated her any differently, was surprised, or had certain expectations, but Tami was undoubtedly dealing with all three, internally. It was a physical battle as much as it was an emotional one. Not only was she struggling with the fact that “doing it alone was never how [she] saw it happening,” but there is also a considerable expectation that someone on disability or disabled by chronic illness can’t own a home.

She went through all of the emotions that you could expect from a process like this: excitement, nervousness, scared, and at times, sad. She struggled with the thought that she had done something wrong, messed up, or was settling when she shouldn’t be. 

“I think by talking and sharing my experience, I show it is possible,” says Tami. “I am no one’s role model, but if you can’t see yourself in someone, you don’t believe it is a possibility for you. You don’t need to wait until you are partnered to buy a home.” 

One of the fears that many women have when it comes to buying a home is that they will look “too committed” in the eyes of their male partners. It will look as though they are already settled and aren’t willing to rearrange their lives for someone else. 

“I see this shifting now,” Tami remarks, and although more and more women are becoming homeowners, that underlying fear is still present.  

A few pieces of advice she wants to leave for those who wish to follow in her footsteps: Don’t take the first loan offered to you. Research and take time to look at different banks — not just the big ones. She explains that the cost of homeownership is often underestimated, and you’re going to want to spend money on all kinds of improvements, without the funds to do so.  

She closes with three powerful words, “don’t underestimate yourself.”  

“Had I lacked a cheerleader telling me this was a possibility, I wouldn’t have bought my home. I would have accepted the naysayers and the voice in my head that told me it was too much for me, says Tami. “Find cheerleaders in your life – they dream bigger for you than you ever will.” 

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Tori Dunlap

Tori Dunlap is a millennial money and career expert. Her career started with landing a digital marketing contract worth tens of thousands, and a full-time position as the head of marketing and communications for a global security company — all before she turned 22. At just 25, Tori saved $100,000 and has founded Her First $100K to give women actionable resources to reach their first six figures too. A Plutus award finalist, her work has been highlighted by Arianna Huffington and landed her on the front pages of Marketwatch, CNBC, Yahoo, and Nasdaq.