All the single ladies are buying homes
Living with seven housemates in North Cambridge, Julia Grunewald longed for a rental of her own. But when she searched for a one-bedroom apartment, she realized it made more financial sense to buy her first home. The math was simple and convincing: Her mortgage payments would be almost the same as her monthly rent.
In mid-May, after months of looking at condos, the 27-year-old successfully bid on an old Arlington bungalow with 1,200 square feet of living space, three bedrooms, 1½ bathrooms, a big front porch, and a secluded backyard. It was exactly the type of house Grunewald always imagined living in. And with the purchase, she joined the relatively large number of single women taking the home-buying plunge.
The biggest home-buying demographic after married couples was single women in 2015, the National Association of Realtors reported in January. They accounted for nearly twice as many purchases as single men, across all age groups. In Boston, 70 percent of home buyers were married, 14 percent were single women, 6 percent single men, 7 percent unmarried couples, and 2 percent other buyers. Another way to look at the numbers: Of all the singles buying homes in Boston, women accounted for 70 percent of purchases.
“It might be a little bit daunting for single women to buy houses by themselves,” Grunewald said. “I think it was for me at first. But it makes a lot of sense, and I think single women are pretty sensible.”
Bloomberg predicted a significant increase in single-female buyers in 2016 and beyond, perhaps returning to pre-housing-crisis levels. Single women accounted for 21 percent of all purchasers in 2009, before tougher mortgage-qualification policies dramatically affected the real estate market. Bloomberg cited rising incomes for single women as one reason behind its forecast. Over the past three years, the share of women earning more than $100,000 has increased significantly. The largest increases occurred in Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, according to the report. Meanwhile, in Boston, the share of men earning more than $100,000 actually decreased from 2012 to 2015.
Grunewald, who works at a tech company, mentioned that two single women in her office recently purchased homes, too, but she doesn’t know of any single-male colleagues who have done the same. Local realtors also offered anecdotal evidence of significant numbers of single-female buyers — never married, divorced, widowed, young career women purchasing their first homes, executives relocating, and retirees downsizing and moving closer to children and grandchildren. And they buy homes of all types, from condos to multifamilies.
“I’ve always had a lot of single-women clients,” said Thalia Tringo, a Somerville-based realtor. “Part of it is that there are a lot of young single women around here, and they get to a certain age and it often doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep renting. And, lately, I’ve had more single-women downsizers in their 50s, 60s, and 70s who want to come back to the city and are buying alone.
“My most adventurous buyer was a single woman with a low budget when the market was down. She was willing to buy a rundown two-family, which is now worth more than twice what she paid. She was willing to be a landlord. She was willing to do her own renovations. Now, she is making money off the tenant and has a wonderful place to live.”
Local realtors usually don’t find single-female buyers eager for fixer-uppers, but caution that it’s difficult to generalize about any category of prospective purchasers. That said, several realtors who have worked with single women across Greater Boston relayed similarities in how they approach home buying and how they differ from single men and couples.
According to the realtors, some single women worry that investing a large amount of money in a home will be a lifestyle commitment. And, unfortunately, negative stereotypes persist about women who choose to live alone.
“It can be very emotional for single women when they sign the purchase-and-sale and it becomes more real,” said Robin Kelly, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage and a single home buyer who recently purchased a two-family in Somerville’s Union Square.
“There’s the sentiment that this is a life step that they thought they would be taking with a partner or a spouse. ... We’ve talked about how it’s not a decision to be single versus being a couple; it’s a decision to be a homeowner versus a renter. It’s an economic decision, not a lifestyle decision.”
Single men often come across as less emotionally invested in home purchases, those realtors say. “When I work with single men, they tend to make the decision to buy property in a more detached way than women usually do,” Tringo said. “[They think]: This is a good financial move for me. If my life changes, I’ll sell it and buy something else.’ ”
As Kelly and her single-female clients consider square footage and number of bedrooms, some mention that they may decide to have a child. So, when looking with single-female clients, Kelly sometimes expands the search to properties large enough to accommodate a child.
More commonly, single women raise questions about safety, sometimes eliminating properties on the first floor or with entrances set back from roads or parking lots. Kelly said it’s not unusual for a single-female client to ask, “What will it be like to walk home at 10 o’clock at night?”
Local realtors also commented that single-female buyers typically involve a lot more people in the purchase process. They tend to invite friends, relatives, and others to look at properties before they bid, then they do the same for inspections and other important junctures.
“When I did my inspection, I didn’t know very much about old electrical systems or old plumbing. So, I actually brought Thalia, my father, and a friend of mine to my inspection to get more feedback from people who knew more than I did,” Grunewald said. “It’s probably the case for everyone, but specifically for single women, if there are things that you don’t know about, try to get as much help and be as informed as you can be.”
Still, even with feedback from multiple sources, single women can make decisions more quickly than couples with different priorities and tastes to negotiate. Minka vanBeuzekom, a Coldwell Banker realtor who works with clients in Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Watertown, and Wellesley, recently helped four single women — one widowed, one divorced, and two young first-time buyers — find homes.
They had one quality in common vanBeuzekom said: “They were the easiest because they knew exactly what they wanted.”
The widow and divorced woman, both older than 60, wanted properties close enough to walk places. The women also planned to make their new homes their last. One of the younger women wanted a condo within walking distance of the Red Line and with at least two bedrooms. The other first-time home buyer placed a priority on top-floor units because she liked the light and the air up there.
“I think single women like to buy homes because they like to be in control of their space,” vanBeuzekom said. “You don’t ever have to leave unless you want to. That kind of home security, that stability seemed to be more important to those women who were doing it by themselves.”
It was certainly one of the reasons Grunewald made the transition from renter to buyer. And after nearly three months in her new house, she couldn’t be happier.
“It’s been nice to finally have the ability to have control over my living situation,” Grunewald said. “Because I’ve been renting forever, it’s been really nice now to say: ‘You know what the towel holder in the bathroom is really horrible. I can just buy a new one.’ I don’t have to live with it for the next year or so.
“I’m never bored. I’ve been painting the whole house, doing all the trim work, getting it to look nice. There’s always something to do. I think it will be like that for the foreseeable future. I just love it.”