By 2007, Michelle Jackson, a 30-something writer in Denver, held a master’s degree, had traveled the world and was enjoying her social life as a single woman. She also felt the pull to purchase her own home, a rite of passage she thought was reserved for the coupled.
“I wanted to have my own place,” Jackson said. “A lot of people in my circle of friends were women purchasing their homes when they got married, but I still felt like I wanted to build my own wealth and buy. If and when I met someone, it’s something that just added to what I bring to the relationship. It didn’t make sense to wait.”
A few open houses later, Jackson was preapproved for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage and had put an offer in on a small, one-bedroom home in a triplex in Denver for $72,500. She still lives in the home, which was appraised last year at more than double the price she paid, and said she plans to renovate it and perhaps buy an additional property nearby.
“I’m so happy,” Jackson said. “It’s completely changed how I feel connected to the place where I’m living. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
The news and research about women and money can be dreary. Women earn less than their male counterparts, pay harsher workplace penalties for pursuing parenthood, struggle more with debt and save less for retirement.
But there’s one area of personal finance where single women are outpacing men in the U.S., and it’s a significant one: home ownership.
Nearly a century since the publication of A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf’s essay on women’s urgent need for a private physical space in which to flourish – and a legacy of laws that restricted women in owning property or considered them to be property, single women account for 17 percent of home buyers in the U.S., compared with 7 percent of single men. The data, from last year, are from the National Association of Realtors.
Although women have been ahead of men in NAR’s data since 1981, the gap has widened even further in recent years, said Jessica Lautz, NAR’s managing director of survey research and communications. Property values and mortgage lending imploded after the 2008 financial crisis, and low interest rates have made lending more appealing to new, more frugal buyers.
Single women are also likelier than single men to be parenting on their own, Lautz noted, and therefore likelier to seek stable housing for raising children. There were 8.6 million single-mother households in 2011, more than three times the 2.6 million single-father households, according to the Pew Research Center.
“If you have children, it’s definitely going to play a role in where you’re thinking of living and how,” Lautz said. “And a mortgage can provide financial security. I think women, even with lower incomes, want a place where they can have roots and really own a place. The psychological desire to do that is great.”
With that comes an increase in financial sacrifices women are willing to make to own a home, Lautz said, such as taking a second job or working their budgets to save for a down-payment. “They really value home ownership, and they’re willing to give up a lot to have a home of their own.”
Then there are single women’s sheer numbers. As millennials postpone or shrug off marriage, more women are unmarried than ever before. Today, 1 in every 5 Americans 25 years and older has never been married, a sharp contrast to just 9 percent in 1960, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More of them are men (23 percent) than women (17 percent), according to the Pew Research Center, but it’s the women who dominate as home buyers, for the reasons above, and more.
For one, unmarried women may be likelier than men to seize singledom as a lifestyle, said Bella DePaulo, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the author of Singled Out.
“Despite the stereotypes that insist that women care more about marriage than men do, it may actually be single life that women embrace more than men,” DePaulo said. “Some research suggests that single women are especially unlikely to be lonely again, contrary to our stereotypes. ... I think that buying a home is a way of living your single life fully, rather than seeing your single years as just marking time until you find The One.”
When single women do buy their first homes, they do so at an older age than men, 34 compared with 31, according to NAR research from last year. And women are buying at a lower average price: $173,000 compared with $190,600.
Single women also have long had a slightly higher foreclosure rate than men: 73 per 10,000 vs. 70 per 10,000, said Daren Blomquist, a senior vice president with ATTOM Data Solutions. One reason may be that men’s properties involved larger initial sales and appreciated faster than women’s.
“There’s a domino effect,” Blomquist said. “Because of the wage gap, you see women having to purchase lower-value homes, and they’re more open to risk when they do. Typically what causes a foreclosure is some kind of shock, like a job loss. If you have a lower-value home that’s appreciating less quickly, you have less of a cushion than someone who has seen their value appreciate more.”
For Rachel Weiss, a fashion executive in New York, the thought of owning a home in Manhattan “always seemed so unattainable.” Having spent her 30s and some of her 40s in a rent-stabilized studio in the West Village, she accumulated a pile of cash that was sitting dormant in a savings account and was hungry to invest. On a whim last spring, she began to look at properties, and she said she was surprised when, running the numbers and being preapproved for a mortgage, she saw that a one-bedroom in a co-op in the area could be within reach.
“I outgrew my apartment 10 years ago, and buying a home was always in the back of my mind,” Weiss said. “But I didn’t know what to do and never knew if I could afford an apartment. I started looking online at Trulia and Streeteasy, and the next day (real estate agents) started calling. It wasn’t premeditated or anything. It was almost like I was on Tinder for an apartment.”
After a few open houses, Weiss had narrowed her search to apartments in smaller buildings with lower maintenance fees. She was OK in a walkup, but location was still a priority. She put an offer on a one-bedroom co-op in Chelsea for $640,000. It was accepted. She moved in last August.
“There was a psychological aspect to it, too,” Weiss said. “I’m in my 40s, and I looked at what my life was like. I’m not married, I don’t have kids. I can live alone, and fabulously. I feel empowered.”