First-time homebuyers largely have been credited for the glimpses of optimism appearing in the nation’s housing market. But there’s another demographic group flexing its muscle: single buyers and, more specifically, single women.
Unmarried, solo buyers have been growing in number since the residential market heated up seven years ago, and there’ve been twice as many female buyers as male for at least a decade. In the past two years though, married couples have tempered their enthusiasm for home purchases, but singles with steady jobs and good credit are still closing on homes. They’re either entering the market for the first time or are existing homeowners capitalizing on market dynamics to trade up.
For the year ended in June, 38 percent of all home purchases in the Chicago area were made by singles, according to data recently compiled by the National Association of Realtors®. Single women accounted for 26 percent of all purchases. Nationally, single women accounted for 21 percent of all home purchases, with single men responsible for 10 percent.
At 32, Jenna Crowther is looking to rejoin the local ranks of single women with mortgages. Five years ago Crowther bought a town house in Joliet, a decision she looks back on as an experience that forced her to grow up more quickly. “You couldn’t just go out to dinner or go shopping, you had bills to be paid,” she recalled.
In December, she sold that home to be closer to her job. Now she’s renting in Western Springs while she shops for a home, but she doesn’t like that arrangement. “Starting to rent again, I felt like I was taking a step back,” she said.
Home purchases today appeal to people secure in their jobs who qualify for a mortgage, plan to stay in a home for several years and love a good deal. Home prices continue to fall, tax credits have been extended for first-time and repeat buyers, and interest rates remain low, trending near 5 percent for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage.
That confluence of factors “was like the planets were aligned. It was like the decision was made for me,” said Daphne Zimmerman, who until late October had been a renter since her divorce a decade ago. Now she owns a single-family home in Joliet that’s near her job at a dental office and has a fenced-in yard for her large dog.
“It’s been a dream forever, to prove to myself that I could do it alone,” she said. “There’s something about owning. It’s like having your very own piece of the planet.”
Real estate agents say the women they see tend to be organized, know what they want and are willing to sign on the dotted line.
“Twenty years ago when I went to buy my first house and I was engaged, the title called me a spinster,” said Catherine Dugan LaBelle, a real estate agent at Prime Property Partners in La Grange. “More and more women are getting stronger in their position as landowners without needing a man. We have a stronger economic base, we’re renting on our own rather than living with our parents. There’s a greater confidence.”
The desire to stand on her own prompted Chicagoan Kaelin Dezelan to break from her renter friends and purchase a Lakeview condo when she was 25. Now 34, she sold that condo seven days after listing it and traded up in November to a new, top-floor unit in Lincoln Park with two decks that closed without a hitch. “I was perceived as the better-than-ideal homebuyer,” she said.
In the 12 months ended in June, 44 percent of buyers in Chicago and 25 percent in its suburbs were single, according to the realtors association data. Women alone accounted for 29 percent of homes bought in the city.
While both sexes are still interested in becoming homeowners, they’re entering the market with different expectations, based on the survey of local buyers. Among first-time buyers in Chicago, single women made substantially less than their male counterparts, $57,000 versus $90,000, yet spent a similar amount of money, about $141,000, for first homes. Women also got less bang for their buck; 72 percent of single women bought homes with 1,500 square feet or less, compared with 50 percent of men.
The survey also found that men were less willing to compromise and wanted less help on negotiating price from real estate agents. Men did say they asked for more help finding a home and completing the paperwork.
When she decided she had to move from her Crestwood apartment last summer, Diane Roppolo, 46 and divorced, began looking for a rental because she had never owned a home. But friends and family members convinced her to consider a purchase.
Armed with her budget, Roppolo went shopping for a two-bedroom condo near a Metra train station with a fireplace, garage, and plenty of storage. By her third visit to properties, she’d settled on a unit in Tinley Park and closed on it in late September. She was one of the most organized buyers Mala Gandhi, a Coldwell Banker agent in Downers Grove, said she had ever encountered.
“The women look more for a home that’s warm and inviting where they can just picture themselves doing things,” Gandhi said. “The men just look for the basics. They don’t care about the layout. They’re just looking for a deal.”
Not all agents say they see differences between how single men and women approach the market.
“These people are getting into the locations they want to be in, Lincoln Park, Gold Coast, Bucktown. These are all places they were priced out of,” said Joe Zimmerman, an @Properties agent.
After renting with a group of friends, Chris Tabor, 27, started thinking of buying his own place two years ago but figured it would take several more years of savings to be able to afford a Chicago condo. Instead, in late November, he closed on a small one-bedroom Bucktown unit that has such extras as a parking space and an in-unit laundry that will help its eventual resale.
“I’m single now but I won’t be forever,” Tabor said. “Then I have this place and I can make some money on it and sell it for a down payment on something more permanent.”
Mario Greco, a Prudential Rubloff agent, said singles of both sexes are focused on the bottom line.
“A lot of these singles have been waiting for a few years” to buy, Greco said. “It’s prudent functionality.”
Mary Ellen Podmolik, Chicago Tribune February 28, 2010