Writing about Home and Garden: Paying “Shelter” Markets By Kelly James-Enger

Whether your home is a showplace or you’re simply the king of DIY (do-it-yourself), an interest in decor, gardening or home repair can net you assignments from the lucrative “shelter” market. In addition to magazines dedicated to the home and garden niche, most general interest publications cover these topics to some degree as well. Articles may explain how to landscape your backyard, remodel a bathroom, or maximize your storage space.

Thanks to the practical appeal and increasing interest in home improvement and maintenance, these topics are a lucrative area to specialize in, particularly for writers who have experience with decorating, home renovation, or gardening. Use these tips to break into this lucrative area:

Start with what you know. If you don’t have shelter-related clips, begin with subjects you already have hands-on experience with. If you recently remodeled your bathroom, started a container herb garden, or refinanced your condo, look for markets that would be a good match for those ideas.

Use your background. Consider your work experience as well – if you’ve sold real estate or are an interior designer, you bring a different perspective to the home topics you’ll pitch. Make sure your query includes your relevant qualifications.

You needn’t be an expert on home repair or raising prize-winning roses, but you do have to know enough about home and gardening subjects to write about them accurately. If you’re new to covering shelter-related subjects, start with a relatively simple topic that you have personal experience with. For example, I sold a story on buying your first home to Bridal Guide early in my career; while I didn’t know much about mortgages, I interviewed a realtor and a mortgage broker, and they gave me plenty of information for the story. I also wrote about combining two tastes into one home for Brides. In both cases, I highlighted my recent experiences of moving in together and buying my first home with my new husband in my query letters.

Real estate and home design is a constantly changing field. Pay attention to the latest trends and what’s happening in your neighborhood as well. Is there an increased interest in water gardens? Are more people adding on to their homes rather than moving? Have upscale condominiums become increasingly popular? Look for evidence of trends on a local level; this can provide you with story ideas as well as possible anecdotes and examples for the articles themselves.

Think visuals. Whether you’re writing a piece about interior design or how to prepare your backyard garden for winter, photos, illustrations, and other art may be an integral part of the story. You may use photos to help sell the story idea, and then sell the photos themselves as well. Because of this, it’s worth it to invest in a good-quality digital camera and take a photography class to learn the basics. And, make sure that if you are selling photos, you retain rights to them so that you resell them in the future.
Go one step at a time. For a how-to piece, break down the story into simple, understandable steps – and describe them so that someone else can follow your instructions. Make sure to point out any safety precautions – such as telling readers to wear goggles while using a soldering iron.

Start locally. While national magazines offer more competition, it may be easier than you think to get shelter assignments from local publications. Early in my freelance career, I freelanced for a local paper, where I wrote house profiles several times a month. The stories were simple to do – I met with the Realtor of a local property for sale, toured the house, and wrote a 500-word feature on the home’s specifications. How did I get the work? I was already writing features for the paper, and told the feature editor there I was looking for more work. A few days later, the editor of the real estate page called and offered me a “try-out,” which turned into a nice steady gig.

Some Lucrative Shelter Markets

Just like other specialty pubs, each shelter magazine has its own focus, style, and tone. Here are a few markets to check out:

Art & Antiques. Ninety-percent of this well-known magazine’s articles are written by freelancers. Pay rates are usually $1/word; pitch seasonal topics at least eight months in advance.

Better Homes and Gardens. This classic wants all rights but rates start at $1/word and up. Though articles are only 10-15% freelance written, use the editorial calendar found on the mag’s website to pitch relevant ideas that tie into each issue’s monthly theme.

Cottage Life. This bimonthly magazine, based in Canada, is geared toward people who enjoy time at waterfront cottages along the borders of the U.S. and Canada. It’s 80% written by freelancers and rates range from $100-3,000 depending on story length.

Horticulture. Here, articles of 1,000-2,000 words pay $600-1,500; shorter columns and department pieces run $50-750. The mag wants seasonal material 10 months in advance.

Kelly James-Enger is a speaker, consultant, and the author of books including Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (second edition, Marion Street Press, 2008) and Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money (Random House, 2005.)