Female homebuyers on the rise; Trend: Single women have become such a potent force in the real estate market that builders are designing homes especially for them.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Once upon a time, the shortest distance between a maiden and her castle was a knight in shining armor.

Not anymore.

Statistics and the observations of people in the real estate and mortgage industries indicate that single women are buying property in record numbers. According to the Census Bureau, 56.9 percent of females living alone in the United States owned homes in 1998, up from 51.8 percent in 1988.

That trend has manifested itself in Baltimore and the surrounding area, where many single women are choosing to exercise their growing buying power by purchasing homes.

About five years ago, Kevin Carney, president of Thomas Builders in Columbia, noticed that single women made up a sizable percentage of those buying townhouses in Owings Mills New Town. In response, Thomas Builders developed a townhouse that would appeal to the needs Carney heard many single women expressing.

"I put a product in the area that single women will go to," he said. "It's suburban, convenient, safe and new. It's close to the mall and to the expressways. It lends itself to a master suite and another suite, which allows them to have roommates and share the cost."

Carney estimates that 20 to 25 percent of Thomas Builders' customers are single women.

The trend is equally noticeable in urban and suburban areas. According to Tracy Gosson, director of Live Baltimore Marketing Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes life in Baltimore City, 50 percent to 60 percent of buyers at Live Baltimore's "Buying into Baltimore" home-buying fairs are single women.

"Women aren't waiting for someone to come along and sweep them off their feet and saying, 'Take me to my new house,' " said Gosson, herself a single woman who bought and renovated a house in Butchers Hill.

Debra Wright, an employee of an e-commerce company in Hunt Valley who bought a home in Patterson Park a year and a half ago, agrees. "Having a house used to be associated with getting married and settling down. Now, people are staying single longer and living on their own, and that doesn't keep you from wanting to have a house," she said.

A National Association of Realtors survey reported that 18 percent of all U.S. homebuyers in 1997 were single women.

Some women buy homes because they consider it more affordable overall to buy than to rent. "It seemed like a wise investment," said Wright. "Instead of throwing money away renting an inferior property for more money, you can buy a small place for less money."

Sheri Fuller, a 27-year-old publications employee who bought a house in Butchers Hill, also said affordability contributed to her decision to buy instead of rent.

"People are under the assumption that you have to have a lot of money saved for a down payment, which is not necessarily true, especially for first-time homebuyers. You can get financing where you only have to put down a couple of thousand, if that," she said.

Bob Coursey, marketing director of Ryan Homes Inc., said most of the single-women buyers his company sees fall into one of three groups: those who are marrying at later ages than women did in the past, those who are divorced and those who are widowed. He believes demographic and social trends have contributed to the evolution of each group.

"If you went back 25 years, you'd find that single women ended up moving into the ranks of married women much earlier, so they had not gotten to the point in their professional lives where they could purchase homes on their own," he said.

Rozzie Gottlieb, who works in a law office in downtown Baltimore, recently purchased one of Beazer Trafalgar House's Hollington condominiums at Owings Mills New Town. She is divorced, and she saw buying a home as "sort of like starting over."

"I wanted to have something for myself, something I could decorate the way I wanted to," she said. "I did it for me, basically."

Gottlieb was attracted to Owings Mills New Town because it is convenient to the subway and within walking distance of a grocery store. She also liked the condominium's garage and the fact that maintenance of the grounds is provided.

Many in the real estate business attribute the number of single women buying homes to the fact that women are in the work force in larger numbers and commanding higher salaries than in decades past.

"More women are not only in the job market, but also rising up through the income levels," said William Cassidy, manager of the Fells Point office of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. "They have income levels that can support good choices as far as housing."

Most of the single women buying homes from Thomas Builders are college-educated, mid-level managers between the ages of 24 and 35, Kevin Carney said.

"Clearly, they're achieving the American dream," Carney said. "Their earning power is unbelievable."

According to Eileen Fitzpatrick, spokeswoman for Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant that provides funds to lenders, 13 percent of the mortgages purchased by the organization in the past five years belonged to females with no co-borrower.

While many in the industry say that men and women tend to approach the home-buying process similarly, others see some characteristics as more specific to women.

Cassidy believes many women manage their finances more scrupulously than males: "The asset a single female brings to the transaction is her creditworthiness, which is usually far superior to that of single males. Women tend to have their financial background better organized. Males tend to have more credit problems."

Cassidy also said that he believed single women tend to be more decisive throughout the buying process. Maury Bass, director of sales and marketing for Masonry Macks Homes, concurred.

"I find that women have definite ideas about what they want. They have thought through the process in advance. I find them to be on the whole well-prepared," Bass said.

Often, real estate agents say, single women looking for homes are particularly interested in security and maintenance issues.

Karen Parks, sales consultant for Beazer Trafalgar House, said single women have bought half of the 44 condominiums the company has sold at Whitney at Town Center, a gated community in Columbia.

"The garage feature is a big seller, particularly for the concerns of a single woman who's coming home alone at night. You can access the house directly from the garage -- there's no need to be fiddling with groceries or keys or other things that make someone more vulnerable," Parks said.

Many women buying homes say safety plays at least some role in their decision. "I guess first and foremost safety [was a concern], being single, being a female and being downtown," said Sheri Fuller. She said her counselor at the Patterson Park Neighborhoods Initiative referred her to single females who lived on the street she was moving onto. Their firsthand knowledge of what to expect and how to be safe reassured her.

Fuller chose a house that had been renovated because she didn't want to spend a lot of time or money on repairs. "If you're single you have to know someone or hire someone, and it gets costly," she said. "Why not spend the money up front and get things that are more reliable when you buy it?"

While the jury is still out on whether single women want certain features in a home or whether they approach the buying process differently from single men or married couples, all the real estate agents and homebuyers interviewed agreed on one thing: The days when having a husband was an unspoken prerequisite for owning a home are over.

"Women are finding that they have all the means and all the brainpower necessary to own a house," said Debra Wright.

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