Once a year, Lathaniel Ford packs about 35 people inside a charter bus bound for three different neighborhoods in North Charleston. 

The first stop is always a lower-budget home, one that's older and, with the right financing, could have a monthly mortgage payment of roughly $1,000. 

The second home is slightly newer and larger and closer to a $1,200 monthly mortgage. And the third stop, Ford says, is inside a brand new home. While the third home may be out of the budget for most, he believes its important for first-time homebuyers to see what's possible. 

"I want to give them the exposure that many of them never had," he said. "That’s why it's called the 'DREAM Academy.' " 

A realtor by trade, Ford founded the DREAM Homebuyers Academy in 2016 as a way to educate and coach people about finances and put them on a path to home ownership. 

The biggest hurdle is getting his clients approved for low-interest mortgage loans, which can take some three months and others longer than a year.

And it works. Thus far, about 10 of the DREAM Academy students have purchased and are living inside their own home. Participation costs $150 a year and includes the bus tour. 

"I take anybody, and I'm going to educate them on credit, on budgeting, on financing and simultaneously on the process," he said. "I work with them from the beginning to the very end until we, of course, reach the goal of them owning a home."

The majority of Ford's clients are African-American single women. While he did not plan to target this demographic, he said he's not surprised.

For many African-Americans who grew up in poverty or in families on a fixed income, the concepts of credit scores and mortgage loans can be totally foreign, Ford said. In his experience, they often lack an immediate family member who has purchased a home, and their high schools unlikely offered courses in robust financial literacy. 

Latonya Edwards, for one, didn't think home ownership would be possible until she met Ford.

With $57,000 in student loan debt and $6,000 in credit card debt, she was told by two different realtors that she would not get a loan. But with Ford's financial counseling, the single mother paid off her credit card debt and car payment in a matter of months.

She was approved for a special loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will give her an affordable mortgage in a rural area. She will soon start looking at houses in Berkeley County with her son, who is excited to finally have a yard to play in. 

"I would be the first one out of all my siblings and my parents to purchase a home," Edwards said. "I feel like I accomplished a lot."

Ford said Edwards' story is all too familiar. He grew up in a North Charleston housing development with a single mother who had never owned a home. 

He eventually stumbled into the real estate market and began selling homes in 2007. The recession took a hit on his clients, and on him. He and his wife rented until two years ago. 

His credit score had begun in the low 600s, he said, and it wasn't until recently that he and his wife earned high enough credit to get a loan. He and his wife now live in their dream home. 

Credit scores below 650 are considered poor or bad and ones that are above 700 are good or excellent.

He tells his students to use him as an example. 

"It came full circle," he said. "It was so gratifying for myself. You should lead by example." 

Ford has big goals moving forward. 

While the DREAM Academy is a nonprofit, it does not yet have the 501(c)3 distinction from the IRS. As a result, capital is tight and donations are scant.

Driving the tour bus once a year costs about $500 for a single three-hour trip. If he can secure more robust funding, he could increase the number of trips to four times per year, he said. 

In September, Ford will open DREAM Realty in Ladson, a full-service real estate company that will be housed under the same roof as the DREAM Academy. The company will be able to do everything for clients except produce loans. 

Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.