Cross Industries with Creativity By Dan Rafter

I’d love to have a time machine. If I had one, I’d go back to 2005, or maybe 2004. Back then the residential real estate market was booming. And as a writer who specialized in writing about the housing industry, my business was booming, too.

I was writing freelance real estate stories for the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post. I wrote a feature story for the now defunct Business 2.0 Magazine about a new housing website created by one of the Internet’s most notorious online adult entertainment entrepreneurs. I also contributed stories on a regular basis to six different trade magazines covering the residential real estate industry.

Well, times have changed. If you’re trying, or have tried, to sell a home, you know that the housing market has crashed. That real estate bubble that economists bickered over all during the housing boom? It turned out to be real. Just ask the thousands of realtors who’ve fled the business, or the far greater number of homeowners who’ve lost their residences to foreclosure.

I’m not selling my home, but the housing downturn has certainly hurt me, or, more specifically, my writing business. All those real estate trade magazines I used to write for? These days, only one gives me semi-regular business. I still write housing stories for the Washington Post, but the Chicago Tribune, suffering through a bankruptcy, hasn’t been able to assign me a story in more than a year.

It’s been tough. I spent 10 years promoting myself as a real estate expert. Suddenly, everyone serving this market was falling on hard times. They didn’t, and still don’t, have any dollars to spend on freelancers.

At first, I wanted to panic. So I did, briefly. Then I went to work: It was time to take my real estate experience and use it to get assignments from other markets.

So far, I’ve had some success. For a trade magazine focusing on the erosion-control industry (yes, there is such a trade magazine), I nabbed an assignment writing about the impact that the slowdown in the housing industry has had on that magazine’s readers. I took an unused real estate story, a feature on a new beer distribution center in the Detroit area and how it was going to help provide some dollars in one of the areas of the country hardest hit by the recession, and turned it into an assignment for a trade magazine focusing on water efficiency. Turns out, the distribution center featured an innovative water-reclamation system in its truck-washing bays.

I’ve also taken a few steps away from print writing. Online writing isn’t as lucrative, but it’s mostly easier. I can get more assignments done in a shorter amount of time. I’ve begun ghostwriting for two real estate professionals and an insurer. I’ve also taken on a mortgage blog that pays a decent, if not spectacular, monthly rate.

I’ve made some mistakes, too. I tried some content sites – places like and Suite 101 – and spent too much time with them before realizing that they weren’t working for me.

As freelance writers, we have a wealth of contacts and story ideas. We can slant these stories, and the tips provided to us by our contacts, into features that will work for all manner of publications.

It’s important not to get pigeonholed. I was guilty of that. It was easy getting assignments from real estate publications. My freelance life is more difficult today, but it is getting easier. I’m branching out, and making the time I spent covering the housing industry pay off for me again.

Dan Rafter has worked as a freelance writer for more than 15 years. He’s written for the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Business 2.0 Magazine, Phoenix Magazine and more trade magazines than he cares to count.