Friday, 27 February 2009

Real Estate and the Single Woman

by Laura Rowley
Friday, December 8, 2006

Sarah Van Elderen, 24, bought a one-bedroom condominium in Grand Rapids, Mich., earlier this year, just 18 months after receiving a marketing degree from Grand Valley State University.

She was attracted to the safe neighborhood -- a short trip from downtown and her family -- and the amenities, including a pool, hot tub, and clubhouse.

But mostly, it was about money.

Girls vs. Boys

"The biggest thing for me was spending all that money on rent and at the end of the lease walking away with nothing," says Van Elderen, who shared a rental with a roommate for a year after college before moving back home for a few months.

Van Elderen is part of a record wave of single women buying homes -- 1.76 million in the period from July 2005 to June 2006, comprising 22 percent of the market, according to a study released last month by the National Association of Realtors. That's up from 14 percent a decade ago.

During the same period, the number of single men buying homes stayed flat at 9 percent. "I think it may be simple -- guys don't get serious about real estate until they meet the right woman," says NAR spokesman Walter Molony.

Prime Candidates

Single women are buying homes in increasing numbers for several reasons -- college graduation rates, workforce participation, and earning power are at all-time highs. "The best-educated woman in America is 28 years old -- the best-educated man in America is 56," says Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics magazine and a demographic trends analyst for Ogilvy & Mather in New York.

"Among 25-to-34-year-olds -- key home-buying years -- about 35 percent of women are college graduates, but only 28 percent of men are," he adds. "These women have good jobs, and they make money."

The NAR study found the median age of a single woman buying a home for the first time is 32. The median income for all single women buyers (including those who have owned before) is $47,300, and her median age is 42 -- skewed higher by women who are divorced and widowed.

Meanwhile, single women who might have been laughed out of a bank lobby 25 years ago are given the red-carpet treatment by mortgage lenders competing for their business.

Van Elderen's parents encouraged her to meet with a cousin in the mortgage business, who found zero-down financing for first-time buyers with Heartwell Mortgage. Her monthly mortgage payment and association fee total $740, while rentals in her area go for $500 to $700.

Home At Last

The nesting instinct also looms large for single women.

In 2004, Kerri Milam, 46, bought her third home in Georgia in a decade. "It was pure emotionalism -- I grew up here," she says. "I can hear the kids playing on my old elementary school playground across the railroad tracks.

"I walked in and everything the previous owner had done in terms of window treatments, paint and color combinations felt like home."

Milam's home turned out to be a solid investment as well. Earlier this year she tapped her equity to start a public relations firm after more than two decades in the business. "I pulled enough to have access to liquid money for ten months," she says. "The home equity enabled me to start the business now, versus six months from now."

Like Milam, most single women buyers opt for a detached single-family home -- 60 percent, compared to 35 percent who chose a condo, co-op, or townhouse.

Van Elderen bought a one-bedroom condominium for the maintenance factor. "You can call a guy if your sink clogs or the toilets are overflowing -- you don't have to do it all yourself." She also likes living alone: "It's nice having the freedom to watch television without splitting the time with a roommate; if I want to leave dirty dishes in the sink for a day, I can do that."

Make Room for Baby

Pat Vredevoogd Combs, NAR president and a Michigan realtor, said Van Elderen's desire for privacy is typical of single women buyers.

"A lot of the young men I've sold houses to -- especially just graduating from college -- tend to be in the fraternity mode," says Combs. "They plan to have all their buddies move in with them, while the women want some space alone."

Sometimes that's space for a growing family. Back in 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the television program Murphy Brown for its storyline on the unexpected pregnancy and single motherhood of the main character, played by Candace Bergen. That controversy is ancient history, Francese says.

"Forty percent of all births are to single women," he notes. "Those are not teenage births; teenage births have been dropping like a stone. These are adult women looking for Mr. Right who haven't been able to find him. There's no social stigma whatsoever in being a single mom, and she's got the money."

Timing Is Everything

Van Elderen says friends who have witnessed her home-buying experience are now shopping for real estate themselves.

The time may be ideal: In October, median prices on existing homes fell for the third consecutive month -- down 3.5 percent to $221,000 from the previous year, according to the NAR, the biggest such drop since the organization began tracking prices in 1968.

Meanwhile, new home sales fell more than 25 percent in October, and the inventory of new homes on the market climbed to a seven-month supply.

Plan Before You Buy

Thinking about jumping in? First be certain your job is secure, and be prepared to stay put for at least five years. The spectacular run-up in the market in the last few years is an anomaly -- typically, buyers can't recoup their transaction and relocation costs if they sell within the first five years. And no one knows how long the current downturn may last.

Next, add up your potential mortgage payments, real estate taxes, and homeowner's insurance. The total should be no more than 30 percent of your gross income.

If your rent is at least 35 percent lower than your monthly ownership expenses, it may make more financial sense to keep your landlord.

Look for a city with strong economic prospects and quality-of-life factors that suit a single lifestyle. At the U.S. Census Bureau web site, you can research your potential neighbors' employment levels, income, age, educational attainment, the type of industries in which they work, and average commute time to work.

Take a look at the percentage of housing occupied by homeowners versus renters (an indication of how transient the neighborhood is). Also browse local newspapers and Ticketmaster to survey local cultural events.

Finally, if you're single and have no plans for children, look for bargains in lesser school districts. Milam, for example, gave no thought to the schools when she bought, and is feeling the pinch. "I'm paying all these taxes to have a great school system, but I won't be having kids," she says.

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