How Unmarried Americans Fare as Home Buyers: Single Women, Single Men, and Unmarried Couples

home-in-your-handsTo many Americans, home ownership is an essential component of the American dream. But how often do unmarried Americans get to (or choose to) share in that dream? What do they want when they look for a home, and what do they actually get?

Thanks to 35 years of survey data collected by the National Association of Realtors (NAR), as well as a new report from the Urban Institute and a recent article on home-buying trends, we now have detailed profiles of home-buying experiences of single women, single men, and unmarried couples. Add to that my own research on discrimination against unmarried Americans in the rental market (discussed previously), and we now know more than we ever did before about the experiences of unmarried Americans as home buyers and renters.

The most recent NAR report focuses on data from 2015. Survey participants were 6,406 people who recently bought a primary residence. Groups included married couples, unmarried couples, single women, and single men. The report from the Urban Institute was based on data from more than 60 million mortgages issued over an 11-year period: 2004 through 2014. The main categories of borrowers were single women, single men, pairs in which a man was the main borrower and a woman the co-borrower, and pairs in which a woman was the main borrower and a man the co-borrower.

Here are the highlights of what we know so far about the experiences of single women, single men, and unmarried couples.

Single Women

  1. Single women buy more homes than anyone else except married couples, and have been for more than three decades.

Every year for the 35 years that National Association of Realtors (NAR) has been keeping tabs, from 1981 through 2015, single women have been the second biggest group of home buyers in the U.S., surpassed only by married couples. In 2015, they accounted for 15% of all home purchases, compared to 67% for married couples, 9% for single men, and 7% for unmarried couples. (The NAR also includes a category of “other” buyers, which I will not be discussing.)

The 15% share for single women is more than it was in the early eighties but less than in 2006, when single women accounted for a high of 22% of all home buyers.

Single women are the second biggest group of home buyers among both first-time buyers and for repeat buyers.

Home-buyers in all four groups most often buy detached single-family homes (83% overall). Single women (and men), though, are relatively more likely to buy townhomes, row houses, apartments, condos, or duplexes.

In the NAR survey, 5% of all home buyers were African-American. Among the single women, though, 10% were.

  1. Single women’s reliability in repaying their loans suggests that they get a worse deal on their mortgages than they should.

Single women are not buying so many homes because of their income. They have the lowest income by far of the four groups of buyers.

They are also not buying more houses than everyone except married couples because they are getting such great deals. The Urban Institute showed that single women pay higher mortgage interest rates than everyone else. They are most likely to have high-priced loans. For the most recent six years of the available data, 2009—2014, single women were more likely than anyone else to have their loan applications denied.

Loan applications are approved or denied based largely on credit characteristics such as FICO scores and the riskiness of the loans that are requested (e.g., how big the loan would be, relative to income). Single women generally have weaker credit characteristics. For example, their FICO scores are lower than those of couples applying for home loans (though nearly identical to single men’s scores). The loans they are applying for are larger, relative to their income, than those of the other groups (even though the absolute size of the loans they are applying for is the smallest), which makes them riskier. So the fact that they are consistently denied loans at a higher rate does not in itself suggest discrimination.

However, there is one important qualification. Single women can be counted on to pay back their loans. Their default rates are lower than those of single men. In analyses that take into account all of their credit characteristics, single women – including white, African-American, and Hispanic women – default less than single men. (Couples were not included in those analyses.) As the authors noted, single women “are doing a better job of paying their mortgages than their credit characteristics predict.” The measures used to decide whether to approve a loan don’t work as well for single women, and as a result, “single women borrowers are paying too much for their mortgages.” Single women are denied loans more often than they should be, considering their reliability in paying back their loans.

  1. Single women seem to come to the home-buying process prepared, and they get a lot of what they want.

Do you think that single women find it intimidating to buy a home? Do you think they get all flustered? If you do, you’ve been swallowing too many stereotypes.

Asked about the mortgage-buying process, single women were the least likely to say that it was more difficult than they expected. They were also least likely to say that saving for a downpayment was the hardest part of buying a home.

Even though single women had the smallest incomes, they did not buy the least expensive houses (single men did). They also did not buy the smallest houses (again, single men did). To get the homes they wanted, they made some sacrifices, such as cutting spending on clothes. They were also somewhat more likely than the people in the other three groups to get a second job.

When people set out to buy a home, they usually have some ideal characteristics in mind, such as the price and size and condition of the home, and of course, its location. Most buyers end up making at least some compromises. Single women (along with single men) were most likely to say that they made no compromises at all. The single women who did make compromises were especially unlikely to compromise on distance from friends or family or from a job, the condition of the home, or the size of the lot.

  1. Family and friends matter to single women when they are buying a home.

More often than the people in the other three groups, single women said that they bought a home to be closer to family or friends or relatives. They said the same thing about choosing a neighborhood – convenience to family and friends was more often important to them than it was to single men or married couples.

Single women (as well as single men) were especially likely to say that they wanted to buy a home because of changes in their family situation (such as divorce or the birth of a child). When asked about reasons why they might move, single women again were most likely to say that life changes would be a factor.

As sellers, single women made up 14% of all “for sale by owner” (FSBO) sales, but 24% of all such sales in which the seller knew the buyer.

Single Men

  1. Single men buy homes because they want to own a home of their own.

The NAR survey asked about 15 different reasons for wanting to buy a home. The most popular for all four groups was simply the desire to own a home of one’s own. Single men said this more often than anyone else.

  1. Single men are not especially likely to buy a home for a multi-generational family but they are more likely than anyone else to have lived with family or friends before buying a home of their own.

Overall, 13% of buyers are buying a home for a multi-generational household. For single men, that number is just 10%. When single men do buy multi-generational homes, they are especially attracted by the cost savings and by the opportunity to have a larger house (because of other household members contributing financially).

Across all 6,406 home buyers who completed the NAR survey, only 10% lived with parents, relatives, or friends before buying a home of their own. For single men, that number was double (20%).

  1. Single men are paying their own way, and it takes a while.

Overall, 60% of buyers used their savings for a downpayment. When buyers were single men, that number shot up to 74%. Single men (along with unmarried couples) were especially unlikely to have proceeds from a primary residence to put toward their downpayment. And they were less likely than people in any of the other groups to have a gift from a friend or relative to help with their downpayment.

Single men (along with unmarried couples) were especially likely to find the mortgage application process more difficult than they had expected. They were especially unlikely to be able to save up what they needed for a downpayment within six months. But that wasn’t because of debts from student loans or credit cards or car loans or child care expenses – they had fewer of those than other groups did.

Single men did make sacrifices to buy their homes. Compared to the other groups, though, they were less likely to cut spending on clothes or luxury items.

  1. Single men want their neighborhoods to be convenient to leisure activities and entertainment.

Compared to the other groups, single men do not particularly care about the quality or design of the neighborhood of the house they are buying. They do, though, want to live in a neighborhood that is convenient to their leisure activities and entertainment.

Unmarried Couples

  1. Unmarried couples made the most sacrifices to buy their homes.

Although unmarried couples had the second-highest incomes (only married couples had more money), they were the smallest group of home buyers, accounting for just 7% of all home buyers in 2015. They were especially unlikely to be repeat buyers or buyers of multi-generational homes. In the NAR survey, 85% of all buyers were white. That number was highest among unmarried couples at 91%.

Unmarried couples were especially likely to say that saving for a downpayment was the hardest part of the home-buying process. They were less likely than married couples or single women to be able to save up all that they needed for a downpayment within six months. Because they were usually buying a home for the first time, they were unlikely to have proceeds from a primary residence to put toward their downpayment. But they were more likely to than the homebuyers in any other group to have a gift from a friend or relative to help with their downpayment.

Except for car loans, debts were not a particular problem for unmarried couples in their quest to save up for a downpayment. In fact, they were less likely than married couples or single women to have credit card debt. They were also especially unlikely to have child care expenses or health care costs.

Unmarried couples found the mortgage application process to be more difficult than they expected. But they were especially likely to believe that buying a home was a good financial investment.

Compared to the home buyers in all the other groups, unmarried couples made more sacrifices to buy their homes. More often than the other home buyers, unmarried couples cut spending on entertainment, luxury items, and clothes, and they were most likely to cancel vacation plans so they could afford to buy a home.

  1. Unmarried couples care about many different aspects of their neighborhoods.

When considering the neighborhoods where they might like to live, unmarried couples seem to take more different factors into account than any of the other home buyers do. They are most likely to say that convenience to their jobs matters, overall affordability matters, the design of the neighborhood matters, and convenience to entertainment and leisure matters. They also care about convenience to friends and family, though slightly less often than single women do.

  1. Unmarried couples care about establishing a household but they have not yet found the home they want to live in forever.

Unmarried couples are second only to single men in saying that the main reason for buying a house is that they want to own a home of their own. Only a small number of buyers (2%) say they want to buy a house to establish a household, but double that number of unmarried couples give that reason.

Despite the care that unmarried couples seem to devote to choosing just the right neighborhood, they are unlikely to say that they found the home they want to live in forever. Instead, they say that if they outgrow their home, they will be ready to move.

[Notes. (1) The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (2) The comment option on the UE website has been invaded by spammers, so I have disabled comments for now. I’ll post all of these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there.]

Bella color, square, 376 dpiAbout the Author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of  How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.

Previous columns:

#17 How the Important People in the Lives of Unmarried Americans Are Shortchanged

#16 We the Unmarried: Universities Just Aren’t into Us, and That Needs to Change

#15 The Subversive Implication of Same-Sex Marriage that No One Predicted

#14 Journalists and Social Scientists Glorify Married People. Will We All Look Back in Shame?

#13 Why Is Marriage Still So Glorified When So Many People Are Not Married?

#12 Beyond the Nuclear Family: New Policies and Practices Are Needed for the Way We Live Now

#11 How the Washington Post (Almost) Published a Week of Respectful Articles about Unmarried Life

#10 Unmarried Status Is a Diversity Issue

#9 Unmarried Americans as home buyers and home creators

#8 The right to be single

#7 Nuclear family privilege: Naming it and slaying it

#6 Is marriage a greedy institution?

#5 Housing Discrimination against People Who Are Not Married: What We Just Don’t Get

#4 Now It’s Really Time for Unmarried Equality

#3 3 Roads to Social Justice – For Lasting Change, We Must Follow Them All

#2 The Global Struggle for Unmarried Equality: The Case of Finland

#1 The Marriage Opportunists Are Coming – We Need to Be Prepared (or click here for a version that includes links)

About Bella DePaulo