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A $836,000 home on a single salary – the reality of ‘pink mortgage’ living

Some estimates indicate that at least 25 per cent of home buyers in Canada are women.


Forget looking for Mr. Right. Many women are now looking for the right home in the right neighbourhood.

That's what Fotini Iconomopoulos found herself doing recently when she walked into a row house in Toronto's coveted Riverdale neighbourhood. Although the house was exactly what she was looking for, she still had some doubts, namely about the $800,000-plus sticker price.

But that ambivalence evaporated after meeting the current owner, a woman in her early 70s who was downsizing. She'd been the same age as Ms. Iconomopoulos when she'd bought the place on her own 40 years earlier and was happy to offer counsel.

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"She told me, 'If I can do it, you can do it,'" says Ms. Iconomopoulos, a negotiation consultant who eventually won a short bidding war on the property. "It felt like kismet."

Many other single women wanting to buy their own home or investment property don't need much of a pep talk these days. Some estimates indicate that at least 25 per cent of home buyers in Canada are women, and if they aren't actively in the middle of buying now, they plan to purchase their first home within a couple of years. According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., women are driving sales in the condo market, too.

The pink mortgage trend "is not only continuing, it's growing exponentially," says Dianne Usher, senior vice-president at Royal LePage Real Estate Services Ltd., Johnston & Daniel Division, which covers a swath of central Toronto. She cites better paying jobs and lower mortgage rates for helping to create the boom.

Whether they're young, single and no longer want to rent, or require a new home after a divorce, women tend to be more cautious and analytical when jumping into the real estate market than single men are, Ms. Usher explains.

"Men will say, 'Oh yeah, I just need some space so I can party with my buddies.' But women say, 'I need this to be a good investment and a good growth opportunity,'" says Ms. Usher.

An opportunity to build some wealth is exactly the reason why Sonia Varkey, a marketing director at a Toronto technology company, says she now owns two properties – one in Mississauga, where she lives, and another in Guelph, Ont., that she rents out – and is looking to buy one more in Toronto. She says she started buying real estate after sitting down with her financial adviser a few years ago and saw how dismally her investments were doing. Sticking the money under her mattress would have earned the same returns.

Maybe real estate was the way to go.

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"I'm a single woman working in jobs where there is no pension. I need to take care of myself later on," she says. "Even though everybody keeps talking about a bubble coming, it never does. I can't just wait for it to supposedly burst."

Savvy financial planning aside, women's property preferences actually seem to harken back to an earlier era. Suzanne Ethier, a sales representative for Knight Realty in Waterloo, Ont., says that male clients tend to want to know more about basements, backyards and garages, while women are more concerned about kitchens, entertaining spaces and whether young children's bedrooms are close by.

Single women are also more likely to be looking for lower-maintenance properties such a condos with underground parking and concierge desks, particularly if they're juggling work, children and travel.

"Logistically it just doesn't make sense to buy a house on a corner lot where you have to shovel the driveway plus the sidewalks within 24 hours," she says.

But ultimately, it's flexibility that women are searching for, says Julie Miller, a realtor with Royal LePage Sussex in West Vancouver, B.C. They might be single today, but that doesn't necessarily mean that will be their status in five years. Women are more likely to take the long-term view and think ahead to the future.

"So whether that's buying a one- [bedroom] and den or junior two-bedroom condo as first-time homebuyers, they're looking at something that can work as a home office or guest room now, or a baby's room down the road."

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Ms. Iconomopoulos considers her new house a long-term investment and says she thinks she's made the right decision. After all, she bought the place for $836,000, but similar properties in the area are going for more than $900,000. She was able to sell her first home for $530,000 – a small downtown condo she bought seven years ago for $376,000.

But that doesn't mean she's feeling completely calm about venturing into detached home living, even after running the new numbers frontward and backward with her financial planner.

"I know that worst-case scenario, I can sell the house and be fine," she says. "But I still have anxiety about it. I don't think that will ever go away."

Be prepared and make it happen

Want to buy a home on one salary in 2016? Ms. Miller, the West Vancouver realtor, says it pays to have a solid strategy first.

Know what you can afford. Women are more likely to be preapproved before looking for houses. That's a smart move, particularly in situations where quick decisions are needed and bidding wars are common.

– Think long-term. Consider what your life will look like in five or even 10 years. Buy as much house as you can afford without being house-poor and worried. Selling your home in two years because it's not big enough for a spouse or children will cost you.

– Be creative. Housing can actually be affordable if you're willing to think outside the picket fence. Buy a house with a basement apartment that can be rented out. Live with a favourite sister and split the cost. Buy in a less costly community outside the big city. Learn to live with a minuscule square footage.

– Bide your time. If there's anything Ms. Miller has learned during her years as a realtor, it's this: Even in hot neighbourhoods there will always be deals. You just have to be patient enough to wait for them.

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