I've been self-employed for 7 years and make double my husband's salary, yet I still can't get a mortgage as easily as he can

Courtesy Kelly BurchThe author in her home office.
  • I’ve been self-employed for seven years.
  • I make more than I would at a conventional job, and no one can fire me.
  • But I still have to provide additional proof of income when applying for financing – just one way society doesn’t take self-employment seriously.
  • Read more personal finance coverage.

This spring, my phone rang while I was at lunch. It was my mortgage broker, calling with good news.

“You’re all set with underwriting,” he said. “I just need you to send a copy of your 2012 tax returns.”

That’s right: My 2012 tax returns were being requested for a mortgage I was getting in 2019.

Luckily, I’m organised and had a copy of the tax returns to the mortgage broker within minutes. But after I sent them, I started stewing over how ridiculous it was that the underwriters needed seven years of employment history to take my job seriously. No one has ever asked my husband – a typical W-2 employee – for years’ worth of tax documents to prove his income.

There’s a common notion that self-employment isn’t legit or as “real” as other career paths. It shows itself in innocuous ways, like when friends or family invite me to the beach or call to chat during my work hours.

It also appears in systemic ways, like when I’m required to submit seven years of tax returns to get a mortgage.

Even people who have known me for years hear “work from home” and “writer” and assume I’m occasionally blogging or working on a novel that will never see the light of day, not taking calls with corporate clients and writing for major sites.

Last year, my husband lost his job, and together we decided it would be best that he stay home for our second daughter’s infancy. Suddenly, I was the only breadwinner, which finally helped friends and family realise my job is real. But even then, they often asked if we were “doing OK.”

When my husband returned to work a few months ago, it was because he didn’t want to be a stay-at-home parent, not because of a pressing financial need. And yet, one friend in particular kept mentioning “what a relief it must be.”

People just can’t compute that self-employment was enough to support a family of four. That’s in part because they assume that my income could suddenly disappear, but I’ve learned over the years that self-employment is more stable than traditional employment. It’s time we ditch the notion that being self-employed is a less-secure career choice.

The security of self-employment

I’ve been self-employed for seven years now. During that time, my clients and the type of work I’m doing have evolved slightly, but overall, there has been more consistency than change: I write, and clients pay me.

This year, I’ll bill for about $US100,000, something that blows my mind. That’s about four times as much as I was making at the newspaper I worked for before I went full-time freelance, and more than double my husband’s income.

And still, I’ve always had to jump through extra hoops to prove my income. My husband, who works a traditional job, might be asked for a month’s worth of pay stubs in order to secure a rental or get a car loan. I, on the other hand, might need to show my bank account and full tax returns, then still put down a larger security deposit or down payment.

This comes from a mistrust of self-reported income. I could be inflating my income, people reason, and even if I’m not, who is to say that income is stable.

But really, no employment is entirely secure. My husband has twice been laid off from his seemingly stable job with no warning. I, on the other hand, can’t be fired. Last year, I worked for more than 20 clients. If one of them stops giving me work, my income is reduced, not decimated.

In addition, self-employment gives me control over how much money I make. If I want or need extra cash, I can easily pick up more projects and opt to work more hours.

While my husband might have the option to do overtime if it’s available, he doesn’t have the same direct control over his income that I do.

Why honouring self-employment matters

It may seem trivial to complain about needing to supply extra paperwork for loans. But the truth is that scepticism over self-employment can make a real difference in people’s lives.

I know freelancers who haven’t been able to secure a mortgage, for example, because they haven’t been self-employed for years and years. Though homeownership isn’t right for everyone, it is closely tied to increased net worth and has many tax benefits. People who are self-employed should be able to access those perks through financing, just as traditional employees can.

It’s hard to get a solid number on how many Americans work for themselves. The Pew Research Centre estimated that 10% of Americans were self-employed in 2014. However, it’s clear that the number is growing, driven in part by the gig economy.

People choose self-employment because of its perks, like flexibility, control and, yes, stability. It’s time that these workers get the same respect and access to capital as their counterparts who report to an office every day.

Honouring self-employment is about giving people more options. One poll found that 70% of people want to be self-employed. What’s stopping them? I’m not entirely sure, but the message that self-employment is risky and unreliable has to be contributing.

Helping other people embrace self-employment

Over the past few years, I’ve made it my mission to help people see that self-employment could be a legitimate career choice.

I’ve mentored other writers, mostly women who want to sidestep the corporate world. I’ve been outspoken about the fact that I make more than my husband does in his traditional job. And, I’ve shared that he – not I – stayed home with our youngest daughter for her first year.

All of that is an effort to disprove the idea that self-employment is flaky and unreliable. If one of my daughters wants to start their own business, I’ll fully support them. And if they decide to work a traditional career path, I’ll try to not be too disappointed.

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