More single women than men buy homes. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Earlier this year, Jenny Bicks, a former writer on the HBO series “Sex and the City” tweeted: “24 years ago I wrote an episode of SATC where Miranda is shamed for buying an apartment as a single woman. Now single women outnumber single men in being homeowners. This is thrilling.” The missive racked up nearly 22,000 likes. In the replies, women shared their personal home-buying victories.
When Bicks wrote the episode in 1999, she was in her mid-30s and drawing from her own exasperating house-hunting in Los Angeles. It seemed like every mortgage broker and real estate agent asked, “Oh, just you?” she tells The Washington Post. “You were constantly faced with the fact you were a single woman, of a certain age, buying a house.”
Though Bicks may have been treated like an oddity, it turns out there were more real-life Mirandas in the housing market than Mr. Bigs back then, too. Single women have outpaced single men as home buyers since 1981, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Even as home prices and interest rates surged, the trend has held steady, with single women representing 17 percent of home buyers in 2022 and single men accounting for 9 percent.
But the prevalence of single women in the market has not curtailed the biases that can hamper them at nearly every step of homeownership, from applying for a loan, to dealing with contractors, to turning a profit on resale. Yet another challenge described by some women is harder to quantify: an ambivalence about how society may perceive them for taking such a big financial step alone.
The number-one reason that both women and men seek out homeownership is simply because they want a place of their own, according to NAR data. Many single women also see it as a way to build economic stability — which can be particularly relevant as they plan futures without partners (and while, on average, they earn 83 cents on the dollar compared to men). Changes to their family situation, such as divorce, are another factor that motivates single women to buy, according to NAR.
Nadja Amaguana, 25, got serious about saving for a house during her sophomore year in college — and she was smart to start early, since research from the Urban Institute shows single women have a harder time getting home loans, despite being statistically better than men at paying them off. (Single women received about 20 percent of U.S. mortgages extended in 2020, compared to about 33 percent for single male borrowers.)
Amaguana transferred from Towson University to the University of Maryland so she could live at home and work full-time. On top of scraping together $30,000 from waitressing, she opened an online trading account to invest in stocks when prices were low during the pandemic. Upon graduating, she got a job offer from a real estate private equity firm, which helped her get preapproved for a mortgage.
In 2021, Amaguana bought a townhouse in Montgomery Village, Md. At that point, she’d been searching for eight months and been outbid several times. “I did cry,” Amaguana recalls of finally getting a house. “I was overjoyed.”
Yet after all that effort, when contractors come over, they often assume she’s not the one who bought the place. “It’s always, ‘can I speak to the homeowner?’” she says. “And it’s like, ‘I am the homeowner.’”
Other women recounted similarly frustrating encounters with contractors and repairmen. One recalls being asked, “Why is a pretty girl like you single?” Another tells The Post she was instructed to “make sure your husband is there” for the appointment.
The struggle to be taken seriously is a recurring theme. Last year, Whitney Sharpe, a vice president of sales at a recruiting firm, trekked to an open house near Boston with her brother in tow to offer a second opinion. When they arrived, Sharpe, 28, says the listing agent practically ignored her, though he immediately chatted up her 25-year-old brother. “I think he presumed my brother was the one that had the financial backing,” she says.
Competing against couples further complicates things. Dana Kinsella, 38, recalls being surrounded by couples at open houses. She lost six bidding wars — she assumes because the other competitors had dual incomes — before landing a house in Danvers, Mass., in 2019. Kinsella says she only won the seventh, despite being up against higher offers, because she wrote a letter to the seller, vowing not to tear down his childhood home.
But as Precious Lewis points out, that tactic can also be fraught for solo buyers. Her agent encouraged her to write personal messages when making offers in the competitive market of 2021. He showed her an example that included a photo of a mom and dad with their child, explaining how they planned to grow the family in their new home. Lewis didn’t feel she had a story that could stack up.
“I think couples have a better way of doing that,” says the 31-year-old lawyer. “For a single person, it’s a little bit harder.”
Lewis grew up with a mother who was a sole homeowner and, while working as a divorce attorney, saw the potential pitfalls of sharing property. So she forged ahead. Last April, after six months of searching, she bought a two-bedroom home in Newark — no personal letter required.
As rewarding as homeownership can be, it doesn’t always generate the most optimal outcome for single women. Research has shownthey get lower returns from housing investments than single men. Faculty at the Yale School of Management who studied the phenomenon found that single males have better luck at timing the market, and negotiating in a way that’s advantageous for their returns. Gender bias can play a role in this trend, one researcher noted, citing studies on car buying that reveal when men and women use identical scripts to negotiate, women don’t get the same discounts.
After renovating her three-bedroom house for three years, doing much of the work herself, Kinsella says it still didn’t feel like home, and she was constantly pouring any savings straight back into it. Last year, the marketing professional decided to sell and go back to renting — not an easy choice, but necessary for her mental health, she says. Kinsella paid $400,000 for the house and sold it for $531,000. She says about half the profit went toward her renovation debt.
For a lot of women, buying a home is about more than resale value. It’s about charting their own futures — which can dredge up questions about how society and romantic partners will perceive them.
“I had in my mind from when I was little that you get married, and then you get a house,” says Kristin Messerli, 35, who bought in Los Angeles in 2021. Though she hesitated to do things out of that order, she says she ultimately concluded that it was up to her to build the life she wants. “You don’t have to have a partner that’s going to affirm you or validate your decisions along the way,” she says. (The experience influenced her career path — she’s now executive director of FirstHome IQ, which educates young adults about homeownership.)
Allie Hall, a 34-year-old nurse, also went through something of a personal reckoning when she bought post-divorce. “Going from splitting rent or living with a partner to doing this all on your own is really scary, because you don’t have that extra person to fall back on if something happens,” she says.
She saved for two years to buy her three-bedroom ranch house in Raleigh, N.C. But Hall eventually wants to remarry and start a family, and wondered whether owning her own home would deter potential partners. “This isn’t what I wanted my life to look like,” she recalls of her thinking at the time of the purchase.
She worked through it, she says, by reminding herself that if she wants to move in with a partner, she can just sell or rent out the house. What’s important is that it will be up to her: “One of my big goals when I got divorced was to buy my own home, on my own, that no one could take away, and it was super meaningful when I did that.”
Courtney Vinopal is a business journalist based in New York City.