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You are here: Home Bulletins 2023 fall Is it possible to buy a house in freedom?

Is it possible to buy a house in freedom?

by Free Software Foundation Contributions Published on Dec 06, 2023 01:05 PM
Contributors: Christopher Howard, Simulator Technician and free software advocate

Note: This article was submitted to us via email for publication in the Bulletin. A full-length version of the original is published on Christopher's personal site at: https://u.fsf.org/415

I'm a free software advocate who tries to compromise as little as possible with my principles. For me, this means not only avoiding installation of nonfree software applications on my devices, but also blocking JavaScript in my web browser in order to avoid nonfree web apps. Recently, I have been trying to purchase a house, which has put me in a position to test how difficult it is to purchase a home nowadays without using nonfree software. For those reading this who need more background on what nonfree JavaScript is and its dangers, please read: https://u.fsf.org/416

A nice photo of a small clay house. For those who insist on protecting their freedoms as software users, there are many challenges to buying a house.

A clarification before going deeper: we are only dealing with the question of whether or not you can personally get through the process without using any JavaScript or web apps directly. Your real estate agent (we'll just say "agent" to save time), your lender, and your seller will most likely not be as vigilant in avoiding proprietary web apps.

The short version is that, in principle, it's possible to get through the whole process without JavaScript or proprietary web apps. However, in practice, it will be very difficult to do so without making a few compromises, and, in any case, the process will be painful and may involve some sacrifices.

Viewing listings

The first hurdle I had to deal with was to find and evaluate house listings. Friends and Internet searches all pointed me to listings on Zillow. On Zillow, it is possible to view the house address, image thumbnails, and a few minor details without enabling JavaScript. But if you want to view the photos at full size, or look at other details, you would need to enable (nonfree) JavaScript.

When I got hooked up with an agent, he was able to set up a system where listings would be automatically sent to me in an HTML email. His system allowed me to view most of the listing information without JavaScript enabled, except unfortunately most of the property photos.

File transfer and digital signatures

I'm not wealthy, so I needed a lender. I couldn't get help from my bank (long story), so I had to go with another in-state lender. Immediately, the lender wanted me to send a boat-load of documents such as paystubs, bank balances, etc. The lender assumed that I would be sending the documents to them over their "secure portal" web app. Additionally, in order just to find out which documents I was supposed to send, I was supposed to download a file from the portal.

Several rounds of emails followed in which I tried to work out some other solution. Finally, the lender called me, rather suspicious, wanting to know why I wasn't sending the documents, and what it was I was trying to hide. I stumbled through a brief explanation of software freedom principles, and eventually he grasped the idea well enough that he was willing to work further with me.

Of course, I still needed to send the documents, and I don't happen to have my own trusted, free-software file transfer system set-up. (Well... I took it as a given that I wouldn't be able to get them to agree to use SFTP.) So, the lender emailed the document list to me as an attachment, and then I mailed the documents via USPS. This introduced some extra delays and expenses, but it worked.

Then there were challenges to signing the documents. The lender, agent, and sellers were expecting every form and contract to be signed via DocuSign, which is a proprietary web app for signing documents. So, I had to explain to three or four different people why I didn't want to use that program. Fortunately, my agent has an office in town, so we worked out a system where all documents would be sent to my agent's assistant, who would print them off, have me sign them in the office, and then scan and send copies to whomever needed them. This kept everyone happy, and it had the added bonus of allowing me to easily ask questions about agreements before signing them.

The main difficulty with this system is time pressure. With a lot of the forms, it doesn't matter if it takes you a day or three to get over to the office. But for things like offers and counter-offers, in our very tight market, it was necessary to get contract forms sent through within a few hours, or the whole deal might fall through. And the agent's office wasn't generally open on the weekend. So, I made a compromise once or twice in using DocuSign for a few time-sensitive documents. But I didn't feel too bad about it, since at least everybody knew that is not what I normally do and the reasons why I felt it important to avoid.

First-time home-buyer course

To get me a rate-discount as a first-time home buyer, the lender is required by some law or regulation to put me through a Freddie Mac home-buying educational course. This is one of those proprietary web apps where you have to spend hours clicking through slides and doing multiple-choice tests.

The only ways that I see to take the test in relative freedom are: 1.) to take the test at a library, which would avoid running the app on one's own computer and 2.) asking for an exception so that the test could be mailed to you, taken, and returned in the mail, but I'm unsure if such an exception would be granted.

Conclusions

So, what did I learn from my experience? It is possible to go through the home-buying process without using proprietary web apps, at least if the first-time home buyer discount doesn't matter to you. But expect a roller-coaster ride as you navigate trying to get everyone else on board with your plan. Also, practically speaking, it is very difficult to evaluate listings without being able to look at the photos, which likely will require nonfree JavaScript.

It helps if you have a lender and an agent who both have an office nearby. In my case, nobody was opposed to printing out documents and having me sign them with "wet ink" provided that we could meet deadlines.

In the process, I also learned that brief explanations of software freedom principles usually don't communicate very well. To get the idea across, you need to explain the four freedoms, and then also explain how that ties into JavaScript and web browsing, since most people don't really know what a web app is or how JavaScript plays into that.

Image Copyright © 2023 Boaventuravinicius. This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

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