Alayna Tagariello Francis had always assumed she'd marry first, then buy a home. But when she found herself footloose, free, and definably single in her early 30s, she decided to make a clean break from tradition: She started home shopping for one.
"After dating for a long time in New York City, I really didn't know if I was going to meet anyone," she says. "I didn't want to keep throwing away money on rent or fail to have an investment because I was waiting to get married."
So in 2006, Francis bought a one-bedroom in Manhattan for $400,000 -- and was surprised by how good it felt to accomplish this milestone without help.
"To buy a home without a husband or boyfriend wasn't my plan," she says, "but it gave me an immense sense of pride."
It's no secret that both men and women are tying the knot later in life. A generation ago, statistics from the Census Bureau showed that men and women rushed to the altar in their early 20s; now, the median age for a first-time marriage has crept into the late 20s -- and that's if they marry at all.
The surprise is that even though today's women still make 21% less than men, more single women than men are now choosing to charge ahead and invest in a home of their own. It's changing the face of homeownership in America.
And while that decision to buy can help build wealth and ensure financial stability, plenty of women are finding the road from renter to owner is filled with unforeseen obstacles -- and plenty of soul-searching.
Why single women are rushing to buy solo
According to the National Association of Realtors, single females made up 15% of the home-buying market in 2015, compared with 11% in 1981, the first year these data were tallied. While an uptick of 4 percentage points might not seem like much of a groundswell, it's far more remarkable when you compare that to the portion of single homeowners who are men -- which has actually dipped from 10% in 1981 to 9% today. In fact, in every year, single women bought more homes than single men by a sizable spread.
Jessica Lautz, NAR's manager of Member & Consumer Survey Research, says women often find it more important to put down roots in their community and near their families than men do. Call it a stronger nesting instinct.
"We have consistently seen that women place a high value on homeownership regardless of relationship status," Lautz says. "The data suggests that women desire a place to call their own and are willing, even if they are at lower incomes, to make financial sacrifices to get there."
Or, as Francis puts it, the fact that women aren't as confident that they'll always make a great salary may drive them to invest what money they do have wisely: in a home.
"Bankers will spend $8,000 a month on rent for a party pad," explains Francis. "Generally speaking, men don't think so much about the future. They're more likely to assume they're going to make money."
The challenges of buying a home alone
This is not to say that buying a home as a singleton is easy. Many single women say they struggled mightily to scrape together the money for a down payment, or to get qualified for a mortgage on one income.
And some also faced a bias about the fact that they were single, like St. Paul, MN, homeowner Jennifer O'Byrne, who purchased a co-op in 2006 for $83,000 at the age of 35.
"The co-op board was asking me whether I'd get married or have children," she says. "It was a small studio, and they didn't want anyone else moving in."
O'Byrne was OK with the stipulations -- she figured that the apartment she bought was so cheap, there was little chance she wouldn't be able to unload it or rent it out in the future. "It was a no-brainer," she says.
But often, single female homeowners eventually meet someone they want to live with. So what then?
Victoria Reichelt, who bought an apartment in 2001, let her boyfriend move in and decided to charge him rent. Cha-ching! As a banker, he was making much more money than Reichelt, who was working as a photo editor, and she felt that was only fair.
"I was definitely not worried about asking him to pay," she says. "It just made sense."
Reichelt married her boyfriend/tenant three years later. At that point, she and her husband shed her "starter home" and bought a two-bedroom, this time splitting the mortgage and taking equal equity.
Yet single women don't always outgrow their homes quite so smoothly when a boyfriend or baby enter the picture. Francis, for instance, met her future husband a mere three months after buying her own home. She invited him to move in -- and it felt a bit cramped. More than a bit, actually.
"It was a little tight," she admits. "But hey, that's New York."
However, by 2012, they were expecting their first child, and the already tight apartment was unquestionably too small for three. So they moved, renting out Francis' original one-bedroom for about a year before selling it. They now rent a two-bedroom -- unable to buy due to New York's K2-high real estate prices. This does occasionally make Francis wonder: Would it have been better to hold off on home buying so that she and her husband could have bought a bigger place together?
Why women shouldn't wait
But then again, few of us have fully operational Ouija boards we can pull out of storage to pinpoint exactly when our ideal significant other will arrive on the scene. So putting house hunting on pause is something fewer women are willing to do.
"Women today don't sit around and wait for Prince Charming," says Wendy Flynn, a Realtor in College Station, TX, who has helped numerous single women buy homes. After all, Flynn points out, "The time frame for meeting your dream man, getting married, and having kids -- well, that's a pretty long timeline." So even if you do meet The One a day after closing on your home, "you could sell your home in a few years and still make a profit -- or at the worst, probably break even." If you buy right, that is.
That said, women who do want to marry and have kids as soon as possible will want to eye their potential home purchase with that in mind. Is the new place big enough for a family? Or, if you think you'll sell and move into a larger place once you're hitched, how easy will it be to sell your original home -- or are you allowed to rent it out?
And if you marry or a partner moves in, make sure to consult a lawyer if you want your partner to share homeownership along with you.
"You definitely should not assume that your spouse's home is transferred automatically to you once you get married," says David Reiss, an urban law professor at Brooklyn Law School.
Whatever turns life takes, owning the roof over your head is an empowering move that few women regret -- even if they've since moved out and on with their life.
"Even though I'm not there any more, my home was a great investment," says O'Byrne. "I would definitely advise that women not wait."
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