For an increasing number of women, there's no better commitment than home ownership.Women may be putting off marriage, but they aren't putting off what is usually a person's single biggest purchase of their life. Gone are the days when a single woman would wait to find a significant other before laying down money on a real estate purchase.
It's believed that around 20 per cent of home buyers in North America are single women. That statistic is based on a report released last year by the U.S. National Association of Realtors that said single women comprised 20 per cent of all home buyers. Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies also released a report that said single women are buying in record numbers.
There's no equivalent data for Canada, but an abundance of anecdotal information has led to the creation of shows like HGTV's Buy Herself, which follows single women making their first real estate purchases. Show host Sandra Rinomato, a real estate age nt, came up with the idea after seeing how many single women were house hunting. Toronto-based Lynn Harvey, executive producer, says response has been strong. She's even getting e-mails from single guys who are fans of the show.
"It's not that long ago the man handled the finances and brought home the bacon," says Ms. Harvey. "There's been a shift… Ten or 15 years ago women started to have babies alone. They said, 'I'm 37 and I don't have a man. But I still want to be a mom.'
"Maybe this is some weird follow up to that? They're saying, 'Wait a minute. We can actually [buy property] too."
In B.C.'s Lower Mainland, single females make up at least 15 per cent of real estate purchases, according to an average of monthly surveys conducted informally by the B.C. Real Estate Association.
Around the same number of purchasers are couples without children. About 35 per cent of purchasers are couples with children, the traditionally large market segment. And single men comprise about 10 per cent of home buyers. Six to eight per cent are empty nesters or retirees.
"That would certainly suggest [single women] are a fairly large segment of the marketplace and should be marketed to," says BCREA chief economist Cameron Muir.
"During the recession, certainly one of their larger buying groups at that time were women who'd been recently divorced," he added. "The other buyer groups had diminished dramatically."
Women marrying later, if marrying at all, and the high divorce rate are obvious reasons for the shift. StatsCanada stopped keeping track of the marriage and divorce rates, but its stats for 2008 are 4.4 marriages per 1,000 people — the lowest marriage rate in the last century.
Single women aren't merely wading into the market with a studio condo, either. They are buying investment properties and houses that need renovation.
Lolita Rudovica, a 27-year-old criminal defence lawyer, is already on her second condo purchase. Her 780 square foot Kitsilano one-bedroom condo may cost more in mortgage payments than she'd be paying in rent, but Ms. Rudovica feels that it's worth the investment.
"It didn't make sense to me to spend $1,500 to $2,000 a month on rent, and it's just being wasted," said Ms. Rudovica, who rented for about three years. "It seems that in Vancouver the prices will go up, no matter what."
She says it didn't cross her mind that she should hold off on her purchase until she'd coupled up.
"I've had boyfriends live with me in my apartment, and if I was to get married, I would want to expand probably," she says.
Because of the trend, smart real estate marketers are focusing on this large share of the market that happens to be a well-informed group when it comes to real estate.
"It's a significant part of our business now," says Ross McCredie, president of Sotheby's International Realty Canada. Mr. McCredie, who's never worked as a realtor, says that the industry has largely overlooked this important slice of the market.
"Single women who are buying a home for the first time do a lot more due diligence than others," he says. "So if you are going to appeal to them, you need to be upfront and clear. You don't see traditional marketing that you've seen in the last 20 years, with pretty pictures of stainless steel fridges. They want to know brands, the warranty, and the fees. There is a lot more detail that they will read through than what we've seen in the past.
"We are training our realtors, telling them that when you see someone buying their first home, and they're single, it's not about what you think. It's about their needs and their financial picture, so we can properly advise them on what they can afford. But from what I've seen in the real estate sector is that doesn't occur. They are all about the transaction and the deal, and not thinking long term about what the client actually needs.
"If that buyer is a single female, they are going to ask a lot more questions than we normally get. The standard realtor is a 57-year-old middle-aged male who think he knows a lot more than a 26-year-old girl that just came in. And that's not flying with them. It's funny to watch."
Valerie Senger, 47, says she's been purchasing property as a singleton since she was 26 and living in Saskatchewan. She remembers her motivation. She was 26 and lost $10,000 on the stock market. So, she put her money into a house instead. She made back her $10,000 when she sold the house a few years later.
"I was always interested in real estate. I just always wanted to get my own place. And my parents inspired me too," she says. "I had started renting and they said, 'You're just throwing money out the window. Buy something. So I did and they gave me $3,000 to start, and the rest is history from there.
"I made money every time. I bought and sold. And it moved me along to the next phase."
She's since bought and sold six properties. Today, Ms. Senger lives in Vancouver's West End in a condo that's worth close to $500,000. She paid $190,000 for it in 2002. Three years later, she purchased another condo near Commercial Drive, which she renovated then sold for a $70,000 profit. She then purchased a condo downtown for $382,000, which she rents out to a family. Ms. Senger wonders if women like real estate because it's such a practical investment. She says she was inspired by her own mother's fiscal responsibility.
"My parents have their own business, and she's the lady that has the purse strings. My dad, if it were up to him, he would keep buying quads and snowmobiles and things like that," says Ms. Senger, who works as a sales person for a distillery.
Mr. McCredie says that women are generally more conservative when it comes to money, and they tend to take their parents advice more often than men. He says his wife was a property owner when he met her.
"It's forced savings, and security. The male psyche isn't about home and security.
"Women tend to plan more, they see owning a home from a professional point of view. Again, it's a shift from 20 years ago, when women wouldn't have thought of doing that. But today, they don't want to be dependent on a husband or someone else for their home."
Women are more patient than men with the return on their investments, observes Toronto-based financial advisor Chris Horan.
"Women make very good equity investors, because equity is a long-term thing."
However, just because women are more conservative, it doesn't mean that they aren't entering into high-end purchases.
"We are seeing more and more single women buy high-end real estate, including condos and townhomes," says Mr. McCredie. "In the last month, we've seen homes above $2 million purchased by women."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Sotheby's International Realty Canada