June 30, 2005


Single women drive housing trends

     A story published today in the Detroit News reports that single women are making themselves at home as a powerful force in the housing market: They are now the second largest group of homebuyers behind married couples.

The proportion of single women buyers has nearly doubled to almost 20 percent of all homebuyers in the past two decades.

It's a national shift that's having ripple effects throughout the industry: Some security-conscious and hammer-phobic women are helping fuel demand for townhouses and condominiums. Others are helping to bolster the home improvement industry. And single women have helped drive home sales to record levels.

In fact, single women like Marni Hockenberg, who once thought that homeownership was only for the betrothed, bought houses at twice the rate of single men, who represented only 8 percent of all buyers in 2004.

"If a woman bought a home on her own back then you were looked upon like an ultra, ultra-independent woman who was not marriage material," said Hockenberg, now almost 50 and divorced.

She recently became a single homeowner for the first time after renting for more than a decade.

The trend is driven by changing attitudes as much as changing demographics.

Women today are marrying later, more are getting divorced and fewer are willing to submit to the antiquated notion that homeownership can happen only when a husband comes along. The median age of those single female home buyers is 42, according to the National Association of Realtors, an indication that women are moving into solo homeownership at all stages of their lives.

From 1994 to 2002, about 30 percent of the 12 million new U.S. homeowners were unmarried women, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, where researcher Rachel Drew is studying unmarried homeowners. During that same period, the total number of unmarried homeowners increased from 13.9 million to 17.5 million.

Why single men have lagged in homeownership, on the other hand, is still a bit of a mystery. One theory is that they're more likely to live at home or with roommates longer, or that they're not as concerned about their financial futures, Drew said.

The mortgage industry has created programs for nontraditional buyers, including single women. In the mid-1990s, for example, the Federal Housing Administration started letting women use child support as income to help qualify for a mortgage, said Walter Maloney, spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.

Realtors, too, are jumping on the bandwagon. Agents know that regardless of marital status, women often are the ones who ultimately make home-buying decisions.

Last year, the majority of all brokers and sales agents were women, many of whom like the work because it allows flexible family time, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The demographic changes fueling the trend tend to have a reinforcing effect. Younger women are watching many of their mothers being forced into solo homeownership by death and divorce. And that's creating a new generation of young women who aren't intimidated by the prospect.

When Julie Froemming graduated from college she lasted only three months living with her parents. At age 25, she bought a three-bedroom house near her parents' house in Minneapolis.

"Financially, it was stupid to pay rent and not have any equity," she said.

After a full cycle of seasons, a leaky basement and a water heater that wasn't so hot, she realized that a single-family house in the suburbs wasn't for her. She didn't connect with the nuclear families in the neighborhood. And without a spouse to help out on chores, her house was starting to look like the neighborhood eyesore.

Once she even got reported to the authorities when she didn't get her garbage set out on time.

    Froemming sold that house at a big profit and bought a new condominium, where she felt better about the mix of people and the security that comes with living above the street.