Single, female and shopping for a home (© Bloomimage/Corbis)

© Bloomimage/Corbis

Kishia S. Ward wasn't looking for the home of her dreams when she bought her two-bedroom, 2½-bath townhouse. The 25-year-old student and former business analyst wanted a place "not so much to live in forever but as an investment property, something temporary that, later on when I get married and have a family, I can rent out." (Bing: Tips for single, female homebuyers)

Single female homebuyers such as Ward are a powerhouse group in the real-estate market. In 2011, when Ward bought her home, three of her female friends, also singles in their 20s, also purchased homes. Single women — a group that includes the divorced, never married and widowed — make roughly one in five home purchases annually, according to the National Association of Realtors, second only to married couples, who are about two-thirds of the market.

Slide show:  11 things women want in a home

It wasn't always this way. In the 1970s, "it was very difficult for a single woman to get a credit card, much less a mortgage," says Walter Molony, spokesman for the NAR. 

In 1981, when the NAR started watching, single women and single men each made about 10% of home purchases. Purchases by single men have stayed steady. Single women, however, pulled ahead in the late ’80s, when women grew as a presence in the workforce and social change put pressure on lenders.

Single women's market share reached 20% in 1985 and hovered there until recession and tight credit pulled it down to 16% in 2012. Unmarried couples make 8% of purchases.

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Finally, recognition
Although single women are getting more recognition in the real-estate market, some experts say that many bankers, mortgage brokers, builders and real-estate agents fail to understand their distinct needs and shopping habits.

Jeanie Douthitt, a real-estate agent in Plano, Texas, specializes in helping single women buy and sell homes. Her experiences and her friends' stories showed her that solo women often weren't served well in the market. "We all, at the end of the day, had the same experience, and it was not good," says Douthitt, owner of Smart Women Buy Homes. Her team includes a title agent and mortgage broker, and they all focus on educating clients.

Douthitt tells how one friend, a mother and capable 20-year IBM executive, struggled when she tried buying a home in 2004 after inheriting money. The woman visited a property for sale and encountered the homeowner, who asked, "Honey, do you think you can afford this?"

"He assumed that because I was a single woman I couldn't afford it," the friend told Douthitt. "If it was the last house on earth I wouldn't have bought it."

Home affordability calculator

Douthitt says many women, accomplished in other realms, feel slightly intimidated by real estate and mortgages. She felt much the same in 1988, when, as a single mother, she bought her first home. She didn't know how to find out what she could afford to spend. "Do I find the house first?" she wondered. "Or do I have to get a mortgage first?" Now she helps clients get qualified for a mortgage first, so they know what price home they're qualified to buy.

What women want
While researching her book, "Own It! The Ups and Downs of Homebuying for Women Who Go It Alone," Jennifer Musselman met many single female homebuyers and owners who confessed that they felt overwhelmed by shopping alone for a home and mortgage. "Women, generally speaking, always thought that home purchasing would be something we would do with someone else, as part of a relationship," Musselman says.

This emphasis on relationships shapes many women's approach to homebuying, Douthitt says. Often, for example, they need to develop a relationship with an agent before they feel comfortable asking questions.

"Women want a relationship," Douthitt says. "They want that trust and respect on both sides. Men are more transactional. They just want to go get it."

Her female buyers often need more time than men do to make a decision. They do lots of research. Agents who don't understand this get frustrated and mistake women's penchant for collaboration for indecisiveness, she says.

Before Ward engaged a real-estate agent, she did lots of research online to learn which neighborhoods fit her requirements, but her agent wouldn't listen. She didn't seem to take her seriously. "I don't know if it was because I was a woman or because I was young," she says. She moved on to another agent who was more attentive.

Single buyers — women in particular — like to recruit friends and family to help them decide. "Single women don't have a spouse to bounce the decision around with," Douthitt points out. One buyer wanted Douthitt to meet her mom, her dad, her pastor and her brother from California before she could commit to a purchase.