Who are builders courting? All the single ladies
Even though critics think it’s marketing hooey from an industry starved for sales, women seem to be getting the royal treatment as builders work to win the hearts — and checkbooks — of female homebuyers.
When it comes to house hunting, Kim Sliney is the first to admit she can be picky. After visiting — and vetoing — 37 houses, the single mom from Exeter, R.I., chanced upon her just-right fit: a newly built, $350,000 home that boasted a spacious layout, killer walk-in closets and custom details such as crown molding, granite countertops and a gas fireplace — for no extra charge. How did she stumble upon this particular property? She was driving around in the area and saw a woman-centric sign by the entrance. “It was very intriguing,” Sliney says.
Men may think they run the world, but it's women who are now getting the royal treatment from the housing industry. Indeed, housing-market watchers say that builders are working strenuously to win the hearts — and checkbooks — of female buyers. And with the economy punishing the sexes unevenly, single women have become an especially important force to be reckoned with in real estate. According to the National Association of Realtors, they now sign on the dotted line in nearly a quarter of all U.S. home deals — up from 14% in 1995.
To tap into this formidable market, more industry pros are marketing themselves as “certified” in women’s housing needs. Design Basics, an Omaha, Neb., outfit that trains and certifies woman-centric builders, says its roster of participating firms has more than quadrupled to 70 in the four years since it launched the program.
Developers nationwide are increasingly touting home features to address what they believe women want — think security (more), maintenance (less) and organizing hectic lives with amenities such as walk-in pantries and “drop zones” for groceries. Builders are trying to catch women’s eyes with carefully chosen aesthetic flourishes — right down to brass cabinet knobs — so often invisible to Joe “Where do I put the plasma TV?” Guy Buyer.
And sales teams are exploring selling tactics such as paint-color psychology and spa nights, while doing everything they can to reduce the intimidation factor of the purchase process for solo female buyers. Home-marketing consultant Sara Lamia summed up the industry’s growing fixation on women when she addressed a gathering at this year’s International Builders’ Show: “If mama ain’t happy, you’re dead in the water.”
A passing fad?
To critics, of course, the idea that new homes are more mama-friendly is just marketing hooey from an industry starved for sales. And even woman-centric builders acknowledge that men are just as likely as women to crave roomy closets or sleek countertops. “Much of what we propose is smart design,” acknowledges Paul Foresman, a Design Basics executive.
But hype-driven or not, the wooing of the XX-chromosome crew is the byproduct of genuine demographic and social trends. Women are tying the knot later, pursuing higher degrees and continuing to close the salary gap, with never-married women now earning 94% of what their single male counterparts do. Fewer women are “waiting for Mr. Right to build a nest egg,” says Linda Hebert, trustee of the National Association of Home Builders Professional Women in Building Council; small wonder that they’re not waiting to nest, either.
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Ironically, the beleaguered economy that the housing bubble created may be giving women, particularly younger ones, their biggest shot at homeownership. In the current malaise, people working in the financial and manufacturing sectors — mostly men — took it on the chin first. In 2008 alone, more men than women lost their jobs, by a ratio of three to one.
And in a housing market where depressed prices are creating bargains, 20- and 30-year-old women see their chance to build equity. Ellen Iggulden, a 27-year-old Chicago-based auditor, says most of her guy friends are sitting on the buying sidelines. But among her female college pals, she was actually one of the last to take the real-estate plunge. Hearing about their successes, she says, was empowering: “If they can do it, I can.”
What women really want
Even with more single women diving into the homebuying pool, real-estate experts say understanding and meeting their needs takes work. Design Basics says it’s making a concerted effort to study what women want through focus groups and in-home observation. Builders seeking to be certified as woman-centric by the firm sit through a two-day seminar get bombarded with research and coached on how to retool their blueprints and marketing plans. Ultimately, for a fee of as much as $10,000 annually, they’re allowed to stamp their websites and e-mail signatures with the firm’s woman-centric seal. Some of the program’s suggested feminine features? Wall-mounted gift-wrapping stations with retractable shelves, “serenity packages” (up to $5,000 extra) that include noise-muffling walls to drown out upstairs laundry machines, and hidden storage in the bathroom walls for reading materials and feminine products.
In her hunt for a townhouse under $280,000 in the Dallas area, Sharon Cherrnay has found herself drawn to “feminine” details such as hair-dryer-ready drawers (plug included) and 360- degree mirrors. But while the 54-year-old real-estate professional appreciates thoughtful amenities, her top priority isn’t seeing the back of her hair; like the majority of single female homebuyers, it’s security, so she’s focusing on gated communities. She’s hoping to find a walkable, convenient neighborhood. She’d like the design to have a bit of “romance” to it, she says, but as is the case with many women, she’s avoiding fixer-uppers. “I don’t like the pre-owned feel,” she says.
New laws ushered changes
Homebuying among women such as Cherrnay are actually a relatively new phenomenon. Barely a generation ago, an American women couldn’t get a mortgage without a male co-signer. That changed as divorce rates soared, prompting the passage of equal-lending laws. Today women make up about 21% of borrowers, up from 17% in 1998. But that number doesn’t accurately reflect the homeownership rolls. As courts grant women more favorable divorce settlements than in the past — in some cases up to 70 % of marital assets — they’re receiving the keys to the family house, or the means to find a new one.
Single female homebuyers have also reaped an advantage from the recession, which has punished male-dominated industries disproportionately. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of female payroll employees fell by 2.6 million in 2008 and 2009, compared with 5.8 million for men. Indeed, last year marked the first time that women outnumbered men on the country’s payrolls — a milestone that University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan attributes to the downturn. Historically, he says, the majority of women’s employment gains have occurred in recessions.
Such recent empowerment is a big reason some beleaguered builders see women as key to their industry’s recovery. According to the National Association of Home Builders, single-family home sales are projected to rise 28% this year compared with 2009, prompting some novel and sometimes dubious-sounding marketing ideas aimed at the ladies. Woman-centric gimmicks range from massages and yoga to cooking demonstrations and jewelry-design parties. Mark Patterson, a builder in Maine, is considering holding an educational session on menopause to draw more women to his development, complete with a comedian to keep the event light.
The industry is even looking to hook women in normally guy-heavy arenas such as the World Series. Last year, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate placed an ad in the World Series program inviting women to view “staging to sell” videos on their cell phones. The ad caused such a surge in site traffic that the company is considering similar pitches for football games and NASCAR races.
The gender difference
Still, homeownership for single women isn’t exactly a swing in the backyard hammock. Although women have made gains on the mortgage front — their rejection rates dropped from 37% in 1998 to 23% in 2008 — post-crash loans have been much tougher to land for single-income applicants. And a recent study in the Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics shows that women tend to pay more for mortgages than men because they’re more likely to choose lenders through word-of-mouth recommendations. “Men will search for the lowest rate, while women rely on others,” says co-author Zhenguo Lin, a real-estate professor at Mississippi State University. What’s more, research shows women are 32% more likely than men to receive subprime mortgages.
Then there’s the adventure of home maintenance. To be sure, some single women don’t think twice about fixing a leaky faucet or even installing new floors, but real-estate agents say women are more likely than men to prefer not to deal with the upkeep. When Lindsay Griffiths’ sump pump failed, causing water to drench her heater, the 30-year-old Barnegat, N.J., legal services marketer crawled under the house with a flashlight and mucked around in 18 inches of dirty, cold water to assess the cause before calling her parents at midnight, in tears. “I was kicking myself for not paying attention during the home inspection,” she says.
And home hassles aside, skeptics say some of the marketing flurry around women is half-baked. Part of the problem, says Scott Testa, a marketing professor at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa., is that the real-estate industry has been a late adopter of modern marketing techniques. Learning what customers want simply leads to better design — such as kitchens opening up into family rooms — which isn’t necessarily woman-centric. “More people like open design,” Testa says. “Whether that’s a woman preference, I don’t know that as a fact.”
With so many builders drinking the girl-power Kool-Aid, Greg Brown, for one, decided to take action. The Seattle-based developer started a business to fight what he sees as women’s hold over every detail in the home, right down to the size and shape of the toilet handle. “We’ll go into a house, and a guy will say, ‘Well, I don’t know if she’ll let me have that,’” Brown says. “Most guys are weenies who don’t stand up for anything anymore.”
His solution? Stoke the male mojo by building “man caves.” One of his current projects (price tag: $15,000) combines must-have boy toys such as kegerator, an Xbox 360 game system and a 52-inch LCD TV, along with dude-friendly decor including a “chandelier” made out of golf clubs. The finishing touch? A certified man cave imprint burned into the side of the bar. Apparently women aren’t the only ones being sold a seal of approval.
Tract housing(quick delivery houses) is getting desperate with their marketing ploys. Don't be fooled with all the smoke and mirrors ladies. Buy quality not speedy delivery
As much as it should be a joint decision if a couple buys a home, many wives have a huge input on buying a home. Although common sense should dictate nice kitchens and bathrooms as that is what sells homes.
I also agree with jsburke above as the Community Reinvestment Act destroyed the housing market, no questions about it. Yes, let us hope Big Brother stays out of it and let Capitalism help the economy come back. Otherwise the Commercial Real Estate Market will decline, hurting the Country even worse than the housing market problem.
what women really want? today or tomorrow? builders courting what? "hearts" and bodies. It used to be that the women spent their husbands money and got the bonus of sleeping with the contractor while deciding which of thirty seven refrigerators to choose from. Now we get to sleep with single women who are still just looking for more out of life than the shallow satisfaction of material possessions to impress the next person who has more.
Interesting industry with no shortage of great stories. And men seldom care about refrigerators other than is there beer in it.
Free market capitalism, it works every time it is tried. Producers must tailor their product to fit consumer needs and wants, otherwise they fail. Now if we can only keep the government from doing a repeat of the Community Reinvestment Act and forcing lenders to make loans to people that cannot afford them then everything will be just fine and the market will work as it is supposed to work. However, I seriously doubt the government will resist the temptation to engage in yet another social engineering scheme that will end up costing the taxpayers billions of dollars.