Have you noticed how many television ads for real estate and mortgage firms feature women as the decision maker, the person who is buying or refinancing a home?

One could call it a case of Madison Avenue finally waking up or you could say it is simply reflecting reality.

Single women now represent the fasting growing component of home buyers in the United States. According to the National Association of Realtors single women were responsible for buying approximately one out of five homes purchased in the country - a total of 1.7 million homes - and that was in 2003. The same study found that single women were much more likely to own their own homes by a margin of 56 percent to 47 percent over single men. A Harvard University study noted that single women accounted for 30 percent of total homeowner growth between 1994 and 2002.

There are a lot of factors that have contributed to this growth in women buying and owning homes. Increased wages have boosted female homeownership as the gender gap in pay continues to slowly narrow. Another major factor is the increased availability of financing for women. Not so many years ago a woman seeking to buy a house faced formidable obstacles to obtaining a mortgage - or any kind of credit for that matter. Young women in today's workforce would be appalled at stories their mothers, if they were at all financially proactive, could tell about trying to even obtain a charge account from Filenes or Sears as late as the 1970s. Give credit (pun not intended but there is no other suitable word) where it is due to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; their outreach programs intended for first time homebuyers and minorities have done much to propel women along the path to homeownership. For example, divorced women are frequently given first time buyer status even if they owned a home in the marriage, making many low down payment or subsidized loans available to them. Child support payments can now be counted as income, bolstering many newly single parent's ability to qualify for a mortgage.

These factors may account for the ability of women to increasingly enter the home buying market, but there must also be motivation. The reasons that single women purchase homes probably doesn't deviate much from the motivation of married couples. The crazy real estate market of the last few years has enticed many women into buying a home as an investment. 13 percent of Americans buying second homes (which could also be recreational but still allow for rental income) are single women and the more adventurous are increasingly buying older homes, renovating, and reselling them as a mechanism for asset growth. More traditional types of primary residence purchases also offer financial appreciation as well as many emotional security benefits.

Women are marrying later or not at all. Census Bureau figures peg the average marriage age of women at 26, six years older than the average in 1960. Sadly, the divorce rate, near 50 percent of all marriages, contributes to the number of women looking for homes of their own. Women still outlive men by five years so many women downsize from the marriage home into smaller residences that they buy themselves after their husbands' deaths.

And women, in case you haven't noticed, no longer view themselves as helpless when it comes to maintaining or even improving a home. If Harriet Nelson were still with us she would no longer be nagging Ozzie to change the light bulb in the front hall. Having repainted the hall in the morning she will then spend the afternoon looking for, buying, and installing a new chandelier, with all new bulbs. Home improvement clinics at the big box home improvement stores are filled with DIY homeowners without a Y chromosome in sight. Likewise all of those home improvement shows on television have attracted a wide audience of female viewers, a fact not lost on advertisers who are reaching out to them with new products especially designed for handywomen.

In a 2003 study conducted by Sears Roebuck and quoted in an article by the Mercer County (CA) Chamber of Commerce, 85 percent of the women surveyed had been or figured they will be solely responsible for a home at some point in their lives. A year later another Sears study found that 69 percent of female homeowners consider themselves to be at least somewhat handy and 70 percent stated they enjoyed home repair projects. The Mercer article also states that a 2003 Forrester Research study found that nearly half of all purchases made in Home Depot and Lowes are made by women.

So women homebuyers and home owners are out there in ever increasing numbers, a fact that the real estate industry, bankers, and builders who are now tailoring new construction to concerns of women - primarily security, energy efficiency, and storage are finally recognizing. Now The Harvard Center for Joint Housing Studies has looked hard at these single women who are fueling the market and has issued a comprehensive new report on who these women are, why they buy, where they live and what they pay. We will take a look at Buying for Themselves: An analysis of Unmarried Female Home Buyers by Rachel Bogardus Drew in a subsequent article.