A House of Her Own: Single Women Were the Second-Largest Group of Homebuyers in 2004, According to the National Association of Realtors. Divorce, Delayed Marriage and Financial Independence Are All Playing a Part in This Growing Trend

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WHEN GLENDA KEMPLE'S MARRIAGE ENDED in divorce last year, the Dallas-based financial adviser decided to make a clean break from her old house as well. It was too full of painful memories for her liking, and she felt the strong need to make a fresh start.

Kemple--who founded her own investment management firm, Kemple Capital LLC, in 2003--is now engaged to be married again, and is also building a new house. She is paying for the construction out of her personal assets and will own it separately from her future husband--even though they will both reside there.

Kemple's decision to maintain her financial independence as she moves toward middle age (she declined to give her exact age) is one that an increasing number of women are making today, and this trend often manifests itself in the purchase of a home. "I think that as life changes and women go through changes, they feel a need for a fresh beginning," she explains. "It's no longer 'our' home; it's 'her' home."

And often they see that home purchase within the context of a future that seems much less certain than it once might have. "I think single women want to be self-reliant and comfortable with the decisions that they make," says Kemple. "They realize that they may be solely responsible for their future."

Even 20 years ago, a woman in Kemple's position might have been less likely to declare her financial independence quite so boldly, but single women as a demographic group have become much more integrated into the social fabric of American culture. Increasingly they are making their own financial decisions, and that often entails the purchase of a home--which is still the most significant investment that most Americans will ever make.

Single women were the second-largest home-buying group in 2004 after married couples, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), Chicago. At 18 percent, single women were still well behind married couples at 62 percent--but they also bought more than twice as many homes last year as single men, who seem to view the home-buying decision from a very different perspective.

This data is a sign of broad sociological changes that have taken place in the United States. "Women play a larger role in housing markets today than ever before thanks to delayed marriage, higher divorce rates, lower remarriage rates, greater longevity and increased labor force participation," according to The State of the Nation's Housing 2004, a report published by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"It's indicative of the larger role that women play in our society," says Nicolas P. Retsinas, the Joint Center's director.

The gender stats

When it comes to the role of single women in the housing market, the available data sends a mixed message. Over the past 12 years, single women have made up an increasingly larger percentage of total homebuyer households, rising from 16 percent in 1993 to 21 percent in 2003 before dropping back to 18 percent last year. According to the Joint Center's most recent report, the number of households headed by single women also climbed by nearly 10 million between the 1980 and 2000 censuses, totaling nearly 16 million households at last count.

But there are still significant disparities between single men and single women in the home-buying market. Single males accounted for just 8 percent of all home-buying households, according to the most recent NAR data. And yet a Federal Reserve study in 2001 found that only 45 percent of single women with children owned their own homes, while 69 percent of single men with children owned their own homes.

This ownership disparity between single male and female parents is probably best explained by the wide income differential that still exists between men and women in the United States. Freddie Mac estimates that approximately 25 percent of the nearly 8 million single-female parents spend more than half of their income on housing, while only 10 percent of single-male parents spend that much. …