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Solo performances

Single women now make up the second-largest segment of home buyers.

August 01, 2004|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

A woman's place is in the home, traditionalists proclaimed four decades ago, amid much protest from feminists. Today, a woman's place is her home, and she is more likely than ever before to own it.

Women have arrived.

Whether single, divorced or widowed, they are purchasing homes in record numbers, thanks to low interest rates, increased earning power and a desire to make a sound investment, according to several studies.

Single women are now the second-largest segment of the home-buying market, according to the National Assn. of Realtors. In 2003, they accounted for 21% of home purchases, trailing married couples -- who made up 59% of the market -- but well ahead of single men at 11%. However, homeownership among unmarried women with children lags far behind their wealthier male counterparts.

Because many women are earning higher salaries than ever before, the barriers to buying a home without a husband have all but disappeared, housing experts say. Additionally, low interest rates are allowing even the most wary buyers to get into their first homes, with an eye toward moving up if and when they find a life partner.

"Before, women dreamt that they'd meet a man who would buy them a house," said Teresa Sotelo, a divorced media executive who owns a home in Alhambra. "Get over it! Women today are having kids on their own; they're not waiting for Prince Charming anymore."

Alwyn Wright surely isn't. Worried that she was about to be priced out of a Southern California home, the single 30-year-old classical violinist bought a two-bedroom Encino condo in a complex with a gym, swimming pool and secure underground parking for $318,000 in May, after two years of contemplating such a purchase.

The musician, formerly a student at USC's Thornton School of Music, travels outside the country three or four times a year for concerts and often keeps late hours when performing with regional orchestras, including the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Long Beach Symphony orchestras.

Her condo unit, one of scores in the sprawling complex, was the perfect choice for a woman on her own, she said. There is company around when she wants it, and she appreciates the low-maintenance lifestyle.

Wright chose a zero-down option -- she'd saved a fair amount toward a down payment but decided to hang on to the cash -- and pays about $1,800 a month for her first and second mortgages, plus $200 for monthly homeowner association fees. After sleepless nights agitating about going it alone, she now is satisfied with her decision to take the plunge.

"Am I worried? Yes, it's scary," Wright said. "But I also found the experience empowering. The old stigma about women buying a home on her own is being replaced with a new sense of independence."

Wright's condo purchase is fairly typical of single women buying today, said Janet Kemmerer, a Centex Homes spokeswoman. They tend to buy attached units such as condos or single-family homes in high-density areas clustered close to other detached units, which share common landscaping.

"The traditional family is changing," Kemmerer said. "We're seeing a number of single people buying. We also see unrelated singles pooling their resources to buy."

Relatives sometimes share the expense too, said Owen Delman, a Carnahan & Associates agent in Woodland Hills. He recently helped single sisters find the right-sized house in which to raise their children together. Another client, a single woman who adopted a child from China, recently moved up to a bigger house to accommodate her expanded household.

"I see a lot of single parents who need houses," Delman said. "It's an economic necessity."

By 2010, the number of women-headed households with no spouse will increase to 31 million, about 28% of all households in the country, according to Fannie Mae. Since 1950, households headed by women have grown fourfold, largely due to the stepped-up divorce rate, delayed marriage decisions and a longer life expectancy for women.

Reacting to this surge of women-headed households, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation's largest providers of mortgage money, as well as lenders and marketing companies, are specifically targeting single and divorced women for homeownership. That makes sense since, collectively, women earn more than $1 trillion annually and influence $2.4 trillion -- 80% -- of the $3 trillion in annual consumer sales, according to the Women's Mortgage Industry Network, an industry educational group.

"Women have a sense that buying a home is a good investment," said Allegra Calder, a research analyst at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. "Many women don't marry out of college anymore. They work longer now to save for down payments and buy later."

Or in some cases, earlier. Julie Saunders, 26, rented a room in her father's house for three months after college, then shared an apartment with a roommate for a year before buying a newly built, two-bedroom home with a loft in Valencia for $412,000 in July.

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