A few decades ago, a single woman buying real estate on her own was a rarity. Before the Fair Housing Act of 1968, few women could get approved for a credit card, much less a mortgage, without a husband's or father's signature. Now that's all changed. In fact, the National Association of Realtors reports that since the mid-1990s, single women have purchased homes at nearly twice the rate of single men. Last year, single female homeowners made up 18 percent of household composition in the association's Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, compared to 10 percent for single men.
Julie Cook, a public relations professional in Michigan, recently closed on her first home, a three-bedroom ranch outside Detroit. After living in New York City and paying sky-high rent for a few years, the Detroit native recently moved back to the area and decided to take advantage of more affordable home prices. "At this point, it was a better way to spend my money than putting it into rent," she says. "I might as well get equity." She lived with her parents for three months while she saved money for a down payment and browsed properties with her real estate agent. She secured an FHA loan earlier this year and moved into her new house last month.
Interest rates have begun inching back up in recent weeks, so Cook considers herself lucky to have locked in a low rate even as the closing process dragged on. "The hardest part was the wait," she says. "FHA takes a little bit longer because of the additional layer of policy and law."
Although she originally pictured living in a loft with a convenient downtown location that requires little maintenance, Cook says her real estate agent encouraged her to consider other types of properties. She says she's happy to have found a house with a small, manageable yard in a safe neighborhood. "I'm half a mile from restaurants and culture, and I'm able to ride my bike," she says. "Location was a big part of it."
According to Jessica Lautz, a manager of member survey research at NAR, neighborhood safety is a top consideration for single female homebuyers. "Their second most important factor is convenience to friends and family," she says.
"Location, location, location" may be a common refrain in real estate circles, but clearly it's not the only factor. "[Single women] are a very discriminating buyer," says Karen Krupsaw, vice president of real estate operations at Redfin, a technology-powered real estate company. "I don't think they're unrealistic. They can see beyond the way [a house] may show as well as how they can fix it up and how it can be a dream home."
Recent data from Redfin found that 46 percent of women buying alone said they first evaluate a home based on whether they love it, compared to 24 percent of men buying alone. The remaining 54 percent of women and 76 percent of men evaluate a home based on value and cost.
Cost was a key factor for Cailin Heinze, a veterinary nutritionist and professor at Tufts University who closed on a home in Northborough, Mass., in May. "My rent was already ridiculous for a two-bedroom, and it was going to go up another $200," she says. "I thought, if I buy now, this is probably the lowest interest rate that is probably going to be around for the foreseeable future."
Still, Heinze says she was a bit anxious about putting in an offer and closing on the property because other than her educational costs, this was the most she's ever spent. "It's intimidating to think I will pay this much a month for the next 30 years," she says, "but that's how much I would pay in rent."
Because the average salary for a woman still lags behind men's (the American Association of University Women says women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man makes one year after graduation) and lenders favor two-income households over single earners, Lautz says women are "making the most sacrifices to get into a home, but they're still placing a high value on owning a home of their own."
Despite lower pay, women handle credit more responsibly than men, on average, according to Experian, which reports that men have a 7 percent higher incidence of late mortgage payments and 4.3 percent more debt than women.
[Read: 10 Ways Your Home Can Pay You Money.]
Heinze plans to stay in her house for the foreseeable future, but Cook considers her home part of a long-term investment strategy. Cook has a 30-year mortgage with the option to pay it off early with no penalty, so she says she plans to live in the house and pay it off in four to five years before renting it out and moving into "more of a permanent long-term place with ideally a husband, or a boyfriend or whatever happens."
For Heinze, solo homeownership carries a sense of pride. "[I'm] able to have a place that would be truly my own that I could decorate the way I wanted to," she says, "and have some sort of stability."
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