Sarah Strong. Photo by Sarah Whiting.
Timing is everything. Sarah Strong, 29, bought a two-bedroom house in August. The time, she said, just felt right.
For years, her parents and home-owning friends told her “You should buy; you’re throwing your money away [on rent],” she recalled. “But I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of putting down roots.” She wanted to retain the option of taking a job somewhere else; and when she thought about buying a house at all, Strong noted, “I kind of thought I’d end up doing it with someone else … for one thing, because it’s a lot cheaper that way,” she added with a laugh.
But a perfect storm of the real estate kind came together. Her lease expired at the end of summer; so did her boyfriend’s. She’d been with the same firm for seven years, and had taken steps to improve her credit rating over the past couple of years.
“All the talk about predatory lending, foreclosures, and the [resulting] tightening up of the mortgage requirements scared me a little,” Strong noted. “I wanted to get my financial house in order before making the biggest purchase of my life.”
Books like “The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Owning a Home” and “Dare to Repair: A Do-it-Herself Guide to Fixing (Almost) Anything in the Home” line the store shelves. Ads and websites of Realtors and loan officers feature such slogans as “Women Helping Women,” and ask questions like, “As women homebuyers, wouldn’t you like to work with a team of women mortgage consultants?”
Is the surge in homebuying by women mostly hype, or a bona fide trend? According to Chris Galler, senior vice president of the Minnesota Association of Realtors (MAR), it’s the real deal. The trend began picking up steam in the late-1990s, he said. MAR statistics show that single women are buying homes in far greater numbers than single men: Only 9 percent of first-time home sales are to single men, while a whopping 22 percent are to single women (up from 14 percent in 1995).
Erin Huppert is among them. With two real estate agents for parents, it was almost inevitable that she’d become a homeowner, “but this was probably sooner than we expected,” said Huppert, 25.
She began thinking seriously about it after starting work at the Legislature in January. Her motivators? A better commute, a desire to live alone (she shared a suburban apartment with roommates), and an aversion to paying rent “and having nothing to show for it,” Huppert said. In June, she closed on a one-bedroom condo a few blocks from work.
Huppert’s buying decisions were governed by affordability and ease of maintenance. She mainly considered condos and a few townhomes.
What’s driving the boom in homeownership by women? MAR’s Galler cites both economic and social factors. “Economically, women are in a better position now,” he said. “As women’s education levels have risen and social mores have changed, more women have been buying homes.”
Realtor Karen Keljik of Edina Realty sees it as paycheck-driven. “I’m just amazed by some of these young girls-25 or 27 years old-and how much money they’re making,” she said. “They’re doing very well.”
Keljik has been an agent since 1985. When she started out, her clientele consisted mainly of families; now, about three-quarters are single women or young couples. But one thing hasn’t changed: “The woman is the driving force,” she asserted. “That’s who I pay attention to. I ignore the husband. And that’s how it’s always been.”
Keller Williams Integrity Realtor Nina Dojan agrees-speaking from experience both professional and personal. “Like many women, when it came to purchasing a home I was the decision maker,” she said. “My husband’s only request was that it wasn’t too far from his work and the rest was up to me.”
According to “The State of the Nation’s Housing 2005” published by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University: “Households headed by unmarried women with or without children have accounted for nearly a third of the growth in homeowners since 1994.” Well-known pollster Celinda Lake, in her 2005 book “What Women Really Want,” sees women homebuyers as part of a broader trend: Women are changing the face of consumerism by increasingly controlling spending.
Despite the attention being paid, “little is known about unmarried female homebuyers,” concluded a June 2006 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University called “Buying For Themselves: An Analysis of Unmarried Female Home Buyers.” “Only a few surveys and studies have focused on the marital status and gender of homebuyers, and even fewer have sought to identify theirs as a distinct market and consider the differences in their characteristics and motivations for buying homes.”
Listen to her!
Dojan knows from personal experience that some Realtors discount their female clients’ preferences. Talking again about her experience in buying a home with her husband, she said their agent didn’t quite get who the decision maker was, “We had a terrible time with our Realtor,” said Dojan. “He just didn’t listen to what I was telling him.”
In her experience, women have distinct concerns about location, convenience and security, and real estate agents don’t always take the trouble to understand their needs and preferences. “I have a lot of [women] friends whose transactions didn’t go as they hoped-they were treated very generically,” Dojan said. For example, an agent would say to a female client, “The schools in this area are great”-even though the client had no kids.
Many of Dojan’s clients are single and a few years on either side of 30. Often, she said, they had assumed they would wait until they married to buy a home-“but they decided to stop waiting.”
Some real estate agents-especially female agents-are recognizing women as a distinct group, and marketing accordingly. Dojan markets to women because “they’re a large pool of buyers,” she said, “and they’re not served very well.”
Nest or investment?
Home is where the heart is, the saying goes. But women, perhaps even more so than men, have to use their heads as well as their hearts when buying a house.
A recent study titled “Baby Boomer Women: Secure Futures or Not?” in the Harvard Generations Policy Journal, suggests that women’s financial security is closely tied to housing choices. “Boomer women who are counting on ‘home equity extractions’ to finance their current lifestyles and retirement futures may be in for a shock if/when housing values level off and decline,” the report stated. “For boomer women, how financially secure they are likely to be as they age will be greatly influenced by their present and future housing choices.”
With the country in the worst housing slump in 16 years, do women still see homeownership as a path to financial security?
Sarah Strong, who bought her first home just three months ago, views it less as a means to a financial end than as “a place to live, where I can paint the walls whatever color I want,” she said. To her, “It’s a retreat from the madness of the world outside where we can completely be ourselves.”
The housing slump “did concern me a little,” said homebuyer Huppert. She shopped for her condo with an eye toward resale. That issue-along with personal safety considerations-led her toward an upper-level unit. She also chose a small building (four units) where another condo had already sold quickly, over a larger building that had more than one unit up for sale at the same time.
But she doesn’t view her condo as a long-term investment: She plans to stay a few years and move on. If it’s still a buyer’s market, she’ll rent out the condo. “I have relatives who are always looking for someplace to live,” said Huppert.
In contrast, Strong sought a house with “room to grow,” which could still be a good fit in 10 years. “I have friends who have had to stay in a house longer than they had planned” in order to get a return on their investment, she said.
In the end, Strong’s and Huppert’s reasons for buying their homes aren’t so important. What does matter is that they’re changing who has access to the American dream of home ownership.
Want to learn about buying your first home-or do you need help to keep the home you own? These local nonprofits offer a variety of educational resources.
Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) offers free counseling for first-time homebuyers, post purchase counseling and foreclosure prevention.
Home Ownership Center is a nationwide organization that acts as an intermediary between buyers and agencies. Sessions for first-time homebuyers, homeowner information, credit repair and financial management, foreclosure information. Average session cost is $30-60.
Community Action Partnership offers a variety of services to assist moderate- to low-income families with home buying, rental support, foreclosure help and home rehab.