Director Paul Mazursky received three Oscar nominations for his 1978 film “An Unmarried Woman.” The movie starred Jill Clayburgh as Erica Benton, an Upper West Side sophisticate whose comfortable life unravels when her husband moves out during a midlife crisis.
Mazursky was inspired by a divorced female friend who had just bought a house alone. The deed described her as “an unmarried woman.” The antiquated oddness of the phrase lingered.
A couple of decades later, an episode of “Sex and the City” was devoted to Cynthia Nixon’s character, Miranda, having the audacity to buy an expensive apartment on her own.
“And the down payment is coming from your father?” the mortgage guy asked in one of the show’s famous scenes.
As recently as 2014, my name appeared first on our house’s deed, probably due to a slightly higher credit rating than my spouse. But our boilerplate contract wasn’t made for these times: Our documents state that I am Kara Baskin, husband (despite being a woman, as far as I’m aware).
“I’ve been an attorney in Massachusetts for 30 years. And, during that time, I’ve come across a lot of things that bother me,” said David Hallett, a lawyer with Hallett Closing & Title in Marblehead. Sexist language is chief among them. He started his career as an assistant attorney general in Massachusetts in the Consumer Protection Division, and fighting gender bias in real estate is a professional passion.
In the 1900s, terms such as “spinster” referred to single women, making the term “unmarried” seem downright progressive. Terminology changed a bit after the Fair Housing Act of 1968; a 1974 amendment banned discrimination on the basis of gender identity. But community property standards complicate things.
In Massachusetts, a home buyer can obtain a mortgage alone, even if married. But the 2011 Homestead Act protects spousal rights: Even if they aren’t on the deed, a spouse is entitled to use the property, and the home can’t be sold without spousal consent. Ergo, documenting marital status is essential, if unromantic.
Hallett is not a fan of how these deeds are written, though, even if they’re a formality.
“There’s unconscious bias. We have been saying that men come first for how many thousands of years? Almost everybody drafts deeds ‘John and Mary, husband and wife,” he said.
To fight the system, he deliberately uses progressive language in his deeds. He prefers using “a married couple,” which, among other things, accounts for same-sex partnerships.
His subtle subversion sometimes irks his peers.
“I get pushback from attorneys all the time,” he lamented. “Whenever I’m drafting a deed on the buyer or seller side, I try to put in the woman’s name first. If it’s a heterosexual couple, I’ll say, ‘a married couple.’ I have had attorneys insist that I reverse it to have the man’s name first and use the term ‘husband and wife,’” he said.
He should meet New Bedford’s Laura Parrish Lavin. She bought her first property, a Chelsea condo, 10 years ago, when she was about to turn 30. During the buying process, multiple professionals asked her whether the down payment was coming from her father.
“I was taken aback because they were making an assumption that I wouldn’t be able to do it myself, and I was proud of myself,” she said.
It didn’t stop there. She later bought a property in New Bedford, by which time she was married. Signing paperwork at the Registry of Deeds, she was told that it would be “proper” to add her husband to the title, even though she was buying the house alone.
Peculiar, since the share of households headed by single women increased from 17.6 percent to 22.6 percent from 1990 to 2019. A recent analysis by online lending marketplace LendingTree found that single women in the United States own 1.5 million-plus more homes than single men in the 50 largest metro areas, Boston included. In Massachusetts, womencomprised 14 percent of home buyers in 2021, according to the National Association of Realtors. Single males made up 7 percent.
And yet, single women are sometimes treated as curiosities. Maudie Vaughan bought a modest Marlborough single-family by herself in 2014. A teacher, she’s the family breadwinner, and her husband isn’t on the mortgage. She used money inherited from her grandfather for the down payment.
During the closing costs, an older male lawyer asked how her husband felt about the purchase.
“It was meant to be a funny, congenial comment,” Vaughan said. “I must have looked at him like he had five heads. It wasn’t a big thing, but it occurred to me later: What if I were gay? I might not even date men.”
Polish immigrant Monika Mazur relocated from Brookline to New Hartford, Conn., to be closer to her boyfriend. His landlord, a pregnant woman, offered to sell the couple her home. Mazur was in a better position to do so, so she offered to buy it alone. Both couples came to the closing, and the women were ignored.
The attorney “was a man speaking to the guys, completely dismissing us. He was speaking to us like we were children who had to sign the papers. I’m buying this house as an immigrant who came to this country: I don’t care about this man!” recalled Mazur, who owns a fitness studio for women.
Now she seeks out female salespeople when making large purchases. Indeed, agents should languish in the 1950s at their own risk.
Manali Shinde, the satisfied owner of a South End condo, refused to buy a property in Watertown after the sellers’ real estate agent wouldn’t acknowledge her.
“If I asked a question like how many bathrooms there were, he would literally point-blank look at my agent and answer him back. Could he not see me?”
As a 29-year-old South Asian woman, the treatment shook her deeply. It should have been a big milestone: She was about to purchase her first property, without help. Instead, she felt judged.
“Subconsciously, no matter how strong-minded you are, you start thinking in the back of your mind: Is it because I’m a woman? My color? What is your problem, sir?” Shinde recalled. “It [would have been] a very proud moment in my life, putting my name on that mortgage. Someone treats you like that, and you question all the insecurities you have. It was off-putting.”
Ultimately, despite loving the house, she walked away.
Stories like these motivate Hallett.
“That’s why I’m constantly trying to fight that myself,” Hallett said. “When a man and a woman call me up to hire me and they say, ‘Call Kevin or Mary back,’ I try to call Mary.”