A level of financial comfort
Married couples typically shop based on home prices. Single women are likely to discuss the monthly payment they can afford, such as: "I want my payment to be $1,500 a month," Douthitt says.

Solo female buyers may be financially conservative, she adds. "She might qualify for $2,500 but she's comfortable at the $1,500 payment."

They "tend to buy more frugally and focus on financial security," says Mollie Carmichael, a principal at John Burns Real Estate Consulting, which sells research and advice to the housing industry.

That frugality can be a matter of necessity. As a group, single women have less money to work with. Their median income in 2011 was $50,200, compared with $58,400 for single male buyers, according to the NAR.

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"I definitely could have paid more," Ward says of her home purchase. She was working as a business analyst for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. She chose a two-bedroom unit because it would be easier to rent out and she wanted the mortgage payment and homeowners-association fees to add up to less than local rental rates, so she'd turn a profit if she became a landlord.

Musselman was 32 in 2005 when she bought her condo in Santa Monica, Calif. Her financial strategy also led her to buy a two-bedroom home. She wanted to be able to add a housemate if her income dropped. She chose to buy a home at the lower end of her budget, for an added sense of financial security. Anyway, she expected she'd soon be "partnered up and moving on to a larger home with someone else."

Ward also scaled back on her purchase because she was afraid she'd intimidate men she might want to date. "Women in the workplace today, in many cases being the breadwinner, I think some men may find it emasculating," she says.

It's not an uncommon concern, Douthitt says. When her clients worry that buying a home will ensure they're single forever, she tells them, "Just because you buy a home doesn't mean that you're not going to get married. Once you get married you can use it as an investment property, or sell it and move."

Single women's needs
Some homebuilders and real-estate companies have conducted research to find out what women in general — and single ones in particular — want in a home. John Burns' research shows differences between the genders in homebuying preferences. Women, and single women, have distinct preferences. But "they're not super differences," Carmichael says.

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Jessica Riffle Edwards, a real-estate agent in Wilmington, N.C., and Coldwell Banker Real Estate's consumer specialist, says men and women share many home preferences, as couples and singles do. They just differ in their priorities. Home security, for example, matters to everyone, but single women place the most value on it, Coldwell Banker learned in a survey.

For Ward, a house not located in a gated community was a deal-breaker. "I wanted to have that extra security of knowing that some random Joe Blow couldn't just enter and rob it. Living on your own … there is something about not having to worry that puts your mind at ease."

Musselman's experience was similar. "As a single woman, I wanted something on a top floor and with underground parking, for security purposes," she says. She might have found a bigger home with more amenities elsewhere, but she chose Santa Monica for its safety, convenience and the likelihood that a home there would hold its value.

Keeping home maintenance manageable is a top priority among single female buyers. When her clients don't grasp the work involved in owning a big yard or garden, Douthitt tries injecting a little reality. "I'll say, 'Are you sure?'" If that doesn't dissuade them, she advises, at least, that they include the cost of hiring someone for yard maintenance in their purchase budgets, since she's seen new solo homeowners overwhelmed by outdoor chores.

Single female buyers often are juggling demanding jobs and many have children, two reasons why they gravitate to condos and townhouses.

"I didn't want a full-scale single-family home because of the maintenance and the overall upkeep," Ward says. She'd watched her mother struggle to keep up the family home when she was widowed. Ward wanted a homeowners association that would do the landscaping and a home warranty "so that, if the dryer breaks, I am not flipping through the phone book trying to find someone to fix it."

Experts' tips
Here are six tips for solo female homebuyers:

1. Find an agent you really connect with. Interview several agents and keep shopping until you feel mutual trust and respect. After all, this is someone who will help you make one of the biggest financial decisions of your life.

2. Get preapproved. Before you start home shopping, get preapproved for a mortgage so you'll have a realistic idea of your price range. While you're at it, learn what the mortgage process is all about. Talk to two or three mortgage companies before choosing one. Since interest rates are about the same everywhere, compare the quality of their service and the differences in their fees.

3. Keep it real. Nearly every homebuyer must come to grips with reality shock. "You're not going to get a million-dollar home for $100,000. That's reality," Douthitt says. Get a realistic picture of what the home you can afford is like. Try making a wish list and shop for the most important one or two features you can afford. If that doesn't work, maybe you're better off renting for a while longer.

4. Cut the maintenance. Learn about the maintenance requirements of each home you consider. If your budget permits, consider buying one that's new or in turnkey condition, or one that needs only a coat of paint. You'll pay more, but the newest homes can be extremely weather-tight, meaning lower heating, cooling and utility bills. Newer materials take less maintenance; some new exterior siding types require no repainting, for example. Also, a newer home lets you put off for years the expense of upgrading appliances, flooring, roof and other home systems.

5. Ask plenty of questions. Homebuying is foreign terrain for nearly everyone. The lingo, laws and procedures may be unfamiliar. Says Douthitt: "There is no stupid question. It's the ones that you don't ask that are stupid. If you hear that you need to get an inspection on the home, ask, 'What does that mean?' If there's going to be an appraisal, ask, 'What's that about?'"

6. Trust your gut. Back away from pressure. Don't talk yourself into something that feels wrong, don't sign anything you don't understand and don't let anyone else push you to go against your instincts. "If this doesn't feel right, there's a reason it doesn't feel right," Douthitt tells clients.