Two years ago, Kimberly De La Cruz, a single mother of two sons in Las Vegas, was swimming in $40,000 of credit card debt and living paycheck to paycheck. Her credit scores languished in the 560 range. And she had zero savings.

Yet De La Cruz, now 32, dreamed of becoming a homeowner.

Like many millennials with moderate incomes — women especially — she found the challenge of qualifying for homeownership particularly daunting. So she abandoned her quest. “I did not think it was ever going to be something that I could do,” she said.

Last April, though — thanks in part to pandemic relief — De La Cruz bought a 1,250-square-foot three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Las Vegas: move-in ready with top-of-the-line appliances, flooring and countertops for $223,000.

For De La Cruz and many other people struggling to get ahead, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to hit the reset button and stash sizable chunks of money from government stimulus checks and sheltering in place to meet their financial goals.

“I think the pandemic has allowed people to save more for a down payment,” said Lisa Graff, a real estate agent with Houlihan Lawrence in Scarsdale, N.Y. “During the first year, most people weren’t traveling, dining out or paying for child care or gym memberships.”

These lifestyle changes, Graff said, allowed many millennial buyers to overcome some of the challenges they have typically faced in the marketplace, like the “general inability to have accumulated wealth” and the need for mortgages in a market that has been upended by cash buying.

De La Cruz’s journey from renter to homeowner is a study in patience, self-discipline and financial literacy.

At the start of the pandemic, De La Cruz worked as spokeswoman for a dating website, a position she had held for three and a half years. In December 2020, she left her position because of what she referred to as a “toxic work environment.”

“I just was like, ‘I’m not ever going to work here again,’” she said. The pandemic, she said, helped her realize she was dissatisfied with her job and that she needed to focus on her mental health. “I wasn’t truly happy, and I needed to start over and reassess my priorities."

A work-related turning point came in January, De La Cruz said, when she accepted a marketing job at a mortgage company. Initially, she considered it merely as a good job opportunity. But soon a bigger picture emerged — she saw it as a catalyst to jump-start her homebuying dream. A month later, in February, she revisited her plan to buy a home.

“I worked closely with many of the loan officers in their marketing efforts, so mortgages were part of my day-to-day,” she said. She was “surrounded by people who not only made me feel empowered, but who also had the tools” to teach her about the homebuying process.

De La Cruz’s mortgage officer from the firm where she worked used a credit simulator, putting hypothetical numbers into the credit cards to see how those payoff figures would affect score. It eventually rose 40 points.

“She played around with it until she found the perfect amounts for my three small credit cards,” De La Cruz said. “I paid them according to her simulation, and my score was finally over 600 within a few weeks.”

And that was enough to qualify her for a mortgage.

De La Cruz, who has since become an event planner, said that without the mortgage job, “I wouldn’t have had the immediate access. I wouldn’t have had the encouragement. I wouldn’t have felt empowered, on a daily basis, to [pursue] this thing that they make look really easy.”

With the quarantine imposed, she barely ate out at all, and instead cooked for her sons and neighboring families in her apartment complex. She was surrounded by other single parents, and they created a “little village,” she said, with a shared social life that involved staying home. Thus, she was spending substantially less of her discretionary income — surplus money she was able to put aside into savings.

The lifestyle changes, the discipline to save two stimulus checks and a tax refund along with help from her mother paid off: She amassed $8,000 in savings. Turns out that was enough to qualify for a 3 percent down payment on a Federal Housing Administration home loan.

Despite having her financing in order, she encountered more challenges trying to find a house she could afford in the hot Las Vegas real estate market that favors people with deep pockets willing to play the escalation game in cutthroat bidding wars.

According to Realtor.com, the current median listing price of a home in Las Vegas is $365,000, and the inventory of homes for sale in Clark County, Nev. — the county that includes Las Vegas — remains low; in June, two months after De La Cruz closed on her home, that inventory was down 48 percent year-over-year.

“I probably put in 20 to 30 offers on houses, and I hadn’t seen any of them before I put offers in,” she said.

Not long ago, the idea of making an offer on a house sight-unseen — guided only by video walk-throughs and staging photos — would have been considered outrageous. In a pandemic market, though, it was par for the course.

“I’d say that we used virtual showings at least once for every buyer,” said Ariel Baverman with Coldwell Banker Realty in Atlanta, of her pandemic sales experience. “Many homes were selling within a day, so that made it a lot more convenient than trying to meet all my buyers in one day.”

By the third week of shopping, De La Cruz said, the market had gotten so competitive that she would wake in the morning, send her loan officer a list of homes from the multiple listing service and ask to put in four offers. “I would say I was typically going about $10,000 over asking on all offers,” De La Cruz said. “My criteria were as slim as the inventory.”

The hot market meant that De La Cruz’s offers were often too late.

Ultimately, she found the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on a 3,000-square-foot lot with a large front yard and top-of-the-line kitchen in a community with two swimming pools and a tennis court.

She submitted an offer for $275,000, which was accepted, but when an appraisal came back lower, she and the buyer settled at $223,000. She closed on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 3.5 percent, with monthly payments averaging just over $1,250, which, she said, is “several hundred dollars less than what I was paying in rent.”

Her sons, she said, never had their own rooms until now. Her younger son, who is interested in art and music, has space for his piano and guitars. The kitchen is large, allowing them to cook together.

“I actually own something. I actually have money,” she said.

According to the 2021 Home Buyers and Sellers Generational Trends Report released in March by the National Association of Realtors, millennials are the fastest-growing buyers group in today’s market. Buyers between 22 and 40, the report says — a combined group defined as “younger millennials” and “older millennials” — make up the largest single group of home buyers, at 37 percent.

Many others in that generation, though, are struggling, Baverman said, because they lack access to information regarding the homebuying process.

“In addition to the down payment, buyers will need closing costs, money for moving expenses, and repairs/updates,” she said. “If someone is looking to save 3 percent for their down payment, they’ll need another 3 to 6 percent for closing costs and expenses.”

De La Cruz has learned that such roadblocks can be overcome.