Self-employment comes with many perks, but for all its advantages — setting your hours, saying no to work you don't want to do — it makes some things more challenging. Getting or refinancing a mortgage is one of those things.
Simply put, it's a headache. And while we can't hand you a glass of water and a couple of Tylenol, we can help you understand what to expect. Before you start picking out paint colors for that dedicated home office space, read up on financial basics and tips that will make the process of getting a mortgage or refinancing your existing mortgage easier.
Can you get a mortgage as a freelancer?
Yes. I'm not going to lie; it's hard to get a mortgage as a freelancer, but it's not impossible. I bought a home six years ago as a freelancer and found the process overwhelming, frustrating, and full of a whole lot of hurrying up and waiting. And in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, an already tricky process is now more challenging. When I refinanced my mortgage in 2020, it took nearly 10 months. This time, the bank required far more additional required proof of income documents — an ordeal that, if I'm honest, I found a tad insulting to the successful career I've worked hard to build.
"Mortgage lenders see freelancers as a higher risk than W-2 workers because of their irregular income," says Andrew Latham, certified personal finance counselor and the managing editor of SuperMoney.com. "You need to have all your ducks in a row before you apply."
What you'll need for a mortgage as a freelancer
To successfully get a mortgage as a freelancer, you're going to need to provide lots and lots of documentation.
"The challenge is establishing your self-employed income to the lender, which is a little more complex than just reporting your pay stubs if you're employed full-time," says Clearsurance.com mortgage expert Imani Francies.
As most lenders want to see paystubs from a reputable employer, as a freelancer, you'll need to be able to show your mortgage lender where your income is coming from and what your expenses are each month. You'll need to have at least two years of tax returns on file, and maybe even three, bank statements potentially 3 to 5 months worth, a profit and loss statement for at least the current year, and if you're refinancing with a different lender you'll also need your current mortgage statement and proof of up to date payments for at least three months. Depending on the lender, other things may be required, including a business license, letters from clients that confirm your past work, and a signed CPA letter stating you are still in business.
How can you prepare to get a mortgage as a freelancer?
Time is your biggest ally when it comes to getting a mortgage as a freelancer. Because you're going to likely need two years of tax returns, it helps to plan ahead.
"As a freelancer, writing off business expenses keeps your tax bill low, but beware, depressing your income will also reduce the loan amount you can qualify for," says real estate industry professional and founder of General Referral Joel Neuenhaus.
That's because, typically, your adjusted gross income is what lenders use to run your figures for your pre-approval amount, so you'll want to be careful about what you write off on your taxes.
With time and advance planning, you can also make yourself appear as less of a risk. As freelance income can vary from month to month, you can build your lender's confidence in your ability to repay the loan by lowering your credit utilization rate and increasing your credit score. Pay off credit card debt and don't take on any new loans. Check your credit score. It is essential for freelancers to be able to show that they have great credit when looking for a mortgage. You want your credit utilization to be around 1-10%.
When you are ready to buy a home, find a lender that specializes in self-employed individuals.
"An experienced lender can make a big difference. By asking the right questions, they will give you a much better idea on what loan products you might ultimately be approved for and will ensure you are counting all of your eligible income," says Neuenhaus, who, as a freelancer, obtained mortgage financing for a primary residence and investment property.
Some final tips
If you're married and your partner is not a freelancer, applying to buy a home with them will make the process easier. If you're single or married to another freelancer, some lenders will let you use a co-signer or a guarantor that may make you a more desirable client.
With persistence, preparation and a little bit of luck, you'll be settling into your new home.