Who are these millions of unmarried women who have plunged into the housing
market in the last few years and what makes them different from married couples
or unmarried men? The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University
recently released a study called Buying For Themselves: An Analysis of Unmarried
Female Home Buyers which takes a comprehensive look at this group of homebuyer
which, as we stated earlier, is the fastest growing segment
of the home buying market.
These unmarried women are far from a homogenous group. They include woman of
all ages, incomes, and races, widowed, divorced, never married; with children
and without, but they still, as a whole show some striking differences from
the other two home buying groups.
The author of the study, Rachel Bogardus Drew, based her research on the 2003
American Housing Survey (AHS) which identified 18 million purchasers of homes,
3.7 million (20 percent) of which were identified as being unmarried females,
3 million (17 percent) as unmarried males, and the remaining 11.27 million (63
percent) as married couples . AHS collected data from households identified
as living in a home they purchased in 2000 or later. The survey excluded buyers
of second homes and disregards all but the most recent purchase by buyers who
moved more than once during the study period. It also covers only a part of
2003. For this reason many of the figures it quotes are smaller than those gathered
during a similar period by the National Association of Realtors® which was
quoted in the first part of this article and will be referenced in the third
Previously married women accounted for nearly two-thirds of the female homebuyers
with the majority of these being divorced or separated; the remainder widowed.
Over half of the unmarried men had never been married and only 6 percent were
Among the first things that discriminate the unmarried female buyer from the
other two groups is age. As a whole they are older than the other groups; they
also have lower incomes and a higher share of minorities in their ranks.
The average age of unmarried female home buyers is 42 while
the men averaged 37 years and married couples 38. The older the age group the
greater its representation in the female home buyer population. Less than 10
percent are under age 25 while 10 percent of unmarried men are in that age group;
about half of female buyers are in the 25 to 44 age group while men and couples
represent around 59 and 63 percent respectively. Women over 45 however, make
up 44 percent of female buyers and 12 percent are seniors.
One quarter of female homebuyers are minorities compared to 21 and 22 percent
of unmarried male and married couples respectively. Under the age of 44, however,
minorities represent 30 percent in the unmarried female cohort but only 22 and
24 percent of the other two groups. The study postulates that large numbers
of minority single mothers are influencing this trend.
Single female home buyers differed most from unmarried males and couples by
their "living situations." This, in turn, influenced their preferences
for home locations and the financial resources that might be available to support
the home purchase.
About 45 percent lived alone and 30 percent were single parents without another
adult in the home. The remaining 25 percent were a mix of women living with
other relatives, unmarried partners, or unrelated relatives who may or may not
have been co-buyers of the property. In contrast, 55 percent of single male
buyers live alone and 20 percent with an unrelated adult. Only 15 percent are
single parents (we assume this means custodial single parents.)
Women buyers, not surprisingly, have lower incomes than the other two groups
of home buyers. The median income is $37,000 compared to $48,000
for single men. Married couples have a median income about twice as high as
the single women. This contributes, in part to these women carrying a larger
"housing affordability burden." More than 40 percent have housing expenses in
excess of 30 percent of their income and more than 20 percent carry a "severe"
burden where housing costs exceed 50 percent of income. The other groups have
less than 31 percent of their households considered burdened and less than 11
percent with severe burdens.
Important to those hoping to market to this group is not only
who bought but what. 15 percent of unmarried females choose condos
as compared to 12 percent of unmarried men and only 5 percent of married couples;
seven percent purchased units in complexes composed of five or more units. Women
also purchased smaller homes and 34 percent buy two bedroom homes, the largest
of any of the three groups.
Single women (and single men) are more likely to buy in urban areas
than suburban compared to their married counterparts and single women
also seem slightly more likely to live in the Northeast and South than other
Women buy new homes at a higher rate than men but lower than
married couples. One in five bought a home built since 2000 compared to 10 percent
of unmarried men and 25 % of couples. Five percent of women, however, still
own substandard housing, i.e. moderately or severely inadequate situations where
homes do not have complete kitchen or bathing facilities, inadequate heat/cooling,
code deficient wiring and plumbing, or rodent infestation
No surprise that woman, given their lower incomes, purchased less costly homes.
The choice of housing type (smaller or condos) and location of course also influenced
the purchase price. Whatever the motivating factors, approximately 75 percent
purchased homes for under $200,000 and only 4 percent bought in the $300,000
price range. A large number, 16 percent, of respondents, however, did not report
a purchase price. 68 percent of unmarried men bought under the $200K threshold
and 6 percent spent $300,000 or more. More than a quarter of married couples
bought homes costing in excess of $200,000.
As important to the market place as the who, what, where, and for how much
variables that make up this study is the information it contains on how and
why women buy their homes. And they do think about and approach the task differently
that others. This, the study points out, varies across the various strata of
the survey respondents. We will discuss some of preferences and motivations
of women buyers in part three of this article.