The Accidental Real Estate Expert by Dan Rafter

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Four years ago, I didn’t know a thing about real estate. I didn’t even own a house. If you would have asked me then if I knew what an ARM was, I would have told you, “Yes, in fact, I have two of them.”

But today I can tell you that an ARM is an adjustable rate mortgage. Why? Because I’ve become a real estate expert, much to my own surprise.

It all started when I began writing for a trade publication called Metro Chicago Real Estate Magazine. I knew nothing about the nuts and bolts of the real estate world. But the pay was good, the magazine was located in my hometown and I was suffering through a slow spell in my freelance business. Of course, because real estate agents and mortgage lenders made up the magazine’s audience – and not consumers — I needed to know as much as possible about the real estate industry so I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of the true professionals. I spent many lonely nights poring over real estate manuals in my local library, visiting more real estate Web sites than I can remember and holding quite a few long conversations with any friendly real estate agent or mortgage broker I could find.

But I learned. And it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d guessed. The publisher liked my story.

Now I not only write for Metro Chicago Real Estate Magazine, I edit it. I do the same for the company’s sister publication, Midwest MortgageMakers Magazine. My growing real estate background has also helped me land good assignments with the real estate sections of the Chicago Tribune, the Times Newspapers of Northwest Indiana and the Indianapolis Star. And just this month, I turned in my first assignment for Affordable Housing Finance, a national trade publication. Real estate writing has become a profitable niche for me, and has helped me grow a steady freelance business. It’s not that competitive a market, either. Most freelance writers don’t drool over the chance to write prose concerning the latest mortgage-financing program offered by Fannie Mae or the newest housing development in downtown Chicago.

Is it boring at times writing about interest rates, affordable housing and predatory-lending legislation? Sure. But other times it’s not. I’ve gotten to write about the serious lack of affordable housing in my hometown, Chicago. I’ve been able to peek into homes in the best and worst of neighborhoods as I’ve taken tours with home inspectors and real estate appraisers. I’ve learned about the wonders of virtual tours – new technology that gives homebuyers the chance to view a home’s bedrooms, bathrooms and living rooms while logged onto a Web site. I’ve even spent an incredibly hectic day with Chicago’s top-selling real estate agent, a 31-year-old from Ireland who’s lived in the United States less than 10 years and is now making millions of dollars every year – by working hours that have doomed his marriage, given him an ulcer and ruined his social life.

My advice to other freelancers is simple: Sometimes you have to take a chance and jump into a field about which you know little. The odds are good that with study and research, you can quickly become an expert. And once you gain that expertise, whether you decide to specialize in technology, transportation, construction or, yes, real estate writing, you gain a competitive edge.

And, in my case at least, my real estate background has paid off in other ways. A little more than two years ago, my wife and then 4-month-old son decided to move from our cramped one-bedroom apartment and into an actual house. I used my real estate knowledge and contacts to find an agent, mortgage lender, home inspector and title insurer. And when the day came to sign all those papers that officially gave us our first home in Chesterton, Ind., just 40 miles from Chicago, I knew exactly what I was putting my name to. How many other first-time homebuyers can say the same?

Dan Rafter has worked as a freelance journalist for the last 10 years. He’s published in BBW Magazine, National Neighborhood News, Digger Magazine, Chicago Parent Magazine, the Chicago Tribune and many others. He lives in Chesterton, Ind., with his wife, Lynn, and 2-and-a-half-year-old bundle of energy Benjamin.