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Single women are a force to be reckoned with in residential real estate.
Despite dealing with lower incomes than men, a pricey housing market and increasingly expensive mortgages, they comprise the second largest group of homebuyers — and have done every year since 1981, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). As of 2023, single women made up 17 percent of all homebuyers. Single men, by contrast, accounted for just 9 percent. (Couples, both married and unmarried, remain the dominant group: buyers in about 70 percent of real estate purchases.)
While they often have to sacrifice to make it happen, single women are a very determined, motivated group of buyers and they’re not letting daunting odds prevent them from achieving the American Dream of homeownership.
- Single women own and occupy 10.76 million homes in the U.S.
- 12.9% of American owner-occupied homes belong to single women
- It wasn’t until 1900 that all states allowed women to hold property in their own names
- It wasn’t until 1974 that women were apply for and obtain mortgages on their own —without a male co-signer
- The median age of a single female first-time homebuyer is 38, compared to 37 for a single male
- Women spend about 2% more when they buy a house than men and sell for 2% less. As a result, they realize 1.5% annualized lower returns, or $1,600 a year, on their homes. Sounds small, but it adds up to $20,000 over 13 years (the U.S. average length of homeownership)
- 17% of today’s single homebuyers are women; 9% are single men, compared to 11% and 10%, respectively, in 1981
Trends in the housing market
There are many reasons why single women seek to become homeowners. One of the leading motivations is they simply want the freedom of owning their own home, according to NAR data. In addition, women often pursue homeownership (or homeownership in their own names) after a destabilizing change in their family situation — such as a divorce or a death — suddenly makes them single.
Some also pursue homeownership for happier reasons as well: after the birth of a child, to be close to friends and family or due to a job change (especially a more lucrative one). Still others do so to escape the uncertainties of the rental market, including regular rent increases and the possibility of a lease not being renewed.
A survey by Bank of America released in 2022 found that 65 percent of single female prospective homebuyers said they’d rather not wait for marriage to buy a home, and 30 percent of women who already own homes bought when they were single.
Kathy Cummings, a senior vice president at Bank of America, remembers when baby boomers expected to get married before becoming homeowners. “Now, the trend is reversing,” she says. “The message is reversing. You don’t need a man any more.”
Madison Fox joined the trend in 2021 when she bought an 800-square-foot house in Bay City, Michigan. Single and in her early 20s when she became a homeowner, Fox says she considered rent a waste of money. “I just wanted to get out of my parents’ house and start my life,” she says.
While Fox is getting started earlier than most, many single women are deciding not to find partners before becoming homeowners, says Lynn Toomey, founder of Her Retirement, a financial education company. “Because people are delaying getting married until an older age, women aren’t waiting for the homeownership part of the traditional coupled-up decision to buy a home,” Toomey notes.
It’s exciting to see so many single women challenging the status quo – taking control of their financial futures and proving marriage isn’t a prerequisite for homeownership.
— Kathy Cummingssenior vice-president, homeownership strategies & affordable housing programs, Bank of America
What’s driving the single women homebuying trend
For single women homebuyers, financial stability is an important part of the calculus, says Jessica Lautz, NAR deputy chief economist and vice president of research.
“Women have a very strong preference for homeownership,” Lautz says. “They think it’s a good financial investment. They also are willing to make financial sacrifices. They traditionally have a lower household income, and they’re willing to cut expenses in other areas of their life to achieve homeownership.”
In something of a paradox, single women make less money on average than single men but are more eager to buy homes, Lautz says. That could reflect the certainty and stability that go along with a monthly mortgage payment, as opposed to renting in an era when monthly rents have been rising sharply.
“Knowing exactly what your payment is going to be for the next 30 years, especially if you’re a single mom, could be incredibly important for women,” Lautz says.
The financial challenges facing single buyers
Home values soared to record highs during the pandemic, and the jump in listing prices has made it especially difficult for those doing a deal on just one paycheck. But even in less-heated times, single buyers face particular challenges:
- Lower annual household income
- More challenges to mortgage approval
- Harder to save for a down payment and closing costs
- No second source of income in emergencies/if financial circumstances change
As far as financing goes, both the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibit discrimination and disparate treatment of mortgage applicants on the basis of sex, marital status and familial status (like being pregnant or a single mother); lenders can only consider creditworthiness and financial info. But even by those standards, qualifying for a mortgage as a single can be far more difficult. The income may be less, of course, along with overall assets and savings. Even if their paycheck is hefty, it’s still a single one; there’s no co-owner to step up if they get laid off. Two credit scores may seem better than one in a lender’s eyes as well.
And for those who do qualify, the amount they’re approved for may not get very far in a pricey market, which significantly limits homebuying options. This problem is further compounded in real estate markets where inventory is already limited, as has been the case across much of the country in recent years.
When you’re a single-income household, it can also be more daunting to squirrel away money for a down payment (forcing you into a larger, more expensive loan). Covering closing costs can also be challenging.
For those who manage to navigate all of these hurdles and become a homeowner, there are still other financial risks — largely dealing with the unexpected. A job loss, a disabling medical emergency or illness, a major home expense: All these can be challenging to cover if you’re solo, unless you have significant reserves set aside.
Advice for getting into the housing market with a single income
Buyers with one income need to take extra care when entering the housing market.
- Take a realistic look at your finances. If you’re drowning in credit card debt or facing other financial challenges, address those issues first. “Making sure that you’re financially ready to buy a home is the most important place for any buyer to start, but this could be even more important for single buyers with one income,” says Robert Heck, vice president of mortgage at Morty, a mortgage marketplace.
- Strengthen your credit score. Your credit score is the most important factor in determining the mortgage rate you’ll pay, so pay all bills promptly and don’t run up large balances on your credit cards.
- Research homebuyer programs. Most states and some cities offer down payment assistance for first-time homebuyers, and/or low-to-moderate-income house hunters.
- Be prepared to do battle. While the U.S. housing supply and price tags have eased a bit in recent months, this remains very much a seller’s market, one characterized by tight inventories and aggressive competition among buyers. Full-price offers remain common.
- Shop around for a mortgage. Once you’ve found a place, make sure to research your mortgage options. Shopping around for a home loan can save you thousands of dollars over the life of your mortgage.
- Consider a low-down payment mortgage. For single women who can’t come up with 20 percent down, there are plenty of mortgages that offer down payments as low as 3 percent, Bank of America’s Cummings says. Consider not just conventional loans, but government-backed mortgages, like FHA loans, too.
- Don’t forget maintenance costs. One downside of homeownership is shouldering the responsibility for repairs and upkeep. Pipes leak, appliances break and roofs lose shingles. Be ready to figure household maintenance expenses into your budget.
Additional reporting by Mia Taylor