A Home of Her Own

Single women comprise a growing niche among homebuyers

October, 2007

Like many long-time renters, the impending end of her lease had Ray Kaneshiro, a pathologist’s assistant at The Queen’s Medical Center, at a crossroads: She could renew her lease, but what about buying?

Kaneshiro is not an anomaly in the United States today. Spurred by skyrocketing rent, rising incomes and a desire to secure their own futures, a growing percentage of single women have entered the real estate market over the last few years.“I had been renting for 15 years,” says Kaneshiro, 38. And for all those years, she hadn’t been able to afford a mortgage. But now she was in a good place professionally and that thought was not so far-fetched. “I didn’t know anything about real estate,” says Kaneshiro, “but I had a lot of single women friends who bought a place on their own, so I talked to them about it.” Then after a telephone conversation with a mortgage broker, she was suddenly sure she could do it.

Kaneshiro adds, “Buying real estate means building equity, and making the place look however you want, instead of putting that money in someone else’s pocket.” She eventually purchased a one-bedroom condominium in the Punchbowl area this past April and joined a new demographic.

Married couples still comprise the largest percentage of homebuyers, but that percentage is shrinking. According to the National Association of Realtors, married couples comprised 60 percent of purchasers in 2006, compared to 70 percent in 1995. The percentage of single men who have purchased homes has remained stable at 9 percent. By comparison, single women comprised 22 percent of U.S. home purchases in 2006, up from 14 percent. In a state where stories of rising median home prices and the difficulties of buying a first home are almost cliché, could such a trend take hold?

Since home sales have not been tracked specifically by gender and marital status in Hawaii, local statistics are hard to come by, but single women who have purchased their own homes—and real estate agents who have worked with this niche—say it’s entirely possible. Shannon Smith, a decade-long Realtor with Prudential Locations LLC, who switched from commercial to residential real estate in 2003, says, “It’s not a majority of my clients, but it’s definitely increasing. The first year, I had maybe one, the next year two, then three or four.” She also speaks from experience. “I bought my first property as a single person – I didn’t even think about being married first. I just thought, ‘As soon as I can afford it, I’m going to do it.’”

Similarly, Realtor Connie Rodrigues with Properties Unlimited, says she has sold homes to five single women over the past three years. “These were all people who had careers, who knew and realized the importance of investing in real estate. And they were all young, I think the oldest was 32.”
Smith says this is a normal progression for first-time single women homebuyers. “Initially they wonder, ‘Gosh, can I do this?’ But having the information gives them the encouragement to move forward.”Sherry Hayashi, 35, a forensic research and analysis consultant at American Savings Bank, is looking to trade up from her first real estate purchase, a townhouse, to a single-family home, even though she has no immediate plans to change her single status. “I wanted more space, a yard and a guest bathroom,” she says, and the option of offering visiting friends a place to stay. “It just seemed like the next logical step – you go to college, you start your career, then you buy your own home,” she says, “my rent was dirt-cheap, so savings were building up with no place to go.” Still, purchasing her townhouse in 2001 was not a decision she made lightly—she ran the numbers several times and found that she could save thousands of dollars in taxes the first year she became a homeowner. She was sold.

At least one real estate company is paying attention. In May, Coldwell Banker launched a marketing program aimed specifically at single women, which includes topics such as financing, finding a home and negotiation. In a press release announcing this initiative nationwide, Charlie Young, senior vice president for marketing of Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corp., noted that “this group has demonstrated its clout in the real estate market and has the economic capability to gain the American dream of homeownership.”

Take Claire De la Cruz, an evaluator with a federal agency. She is chomping at the bit to own real estate in Hawaii, but has to wait until her partner catches up. “I have been wanting to buy a place for a long time, but as I am in a better position financially, I don’t want to push him into it, so I’m waiting until he is ready,” she says. This would be her second purchase: seven years ago, she built a two-bedroom home from the ground up in her native island of Saipan, which she currently rents out.

While still lagging overall, women’s incomes have been catching up to their male counterparts. According to a study by the Department of Sociology at Queens College in New York, women in their 20s now make more than men in most American big cities. Nationwide, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, women’s salaries in 2005 were 77 percent those of men, compared to 65 percent in 1985. Hawaii mirrors the national trend, with 2005 census figures showing earnings for female full-time, year-round workers at 78 percent of their male counterparts.

This trend has converged with buyers’ increased access to real estate data. Kaneshiro says online tools were ideal because she worked long hours and often had to do her research late at night. Real estate agent Wanida Kaufman, whose husband, Bryn, developed the online home listing database Oahure.com, says that while the Web site has received criticism in the past from other real estate agents for providing so much information, it’s a natural fit for women like Kaneshiro. “The Web site lets them know everything, from sales history to where the good schools are … so women can do it on their own.” Kaufman adds, “We know a lot of women use our site, based on the emails we receive. Even if they’re married, usually it’s the women who contact us.”

Breaking In

Not everyone is convinced that this trend could gain a foothold here. Wendy Lum, a mortgage lender with First Hawaiian Bank, says that lending restrictions have gotten tighter in recent months, making it less likely for most single people to afford a home in Hawaii. “Because it’s so expensive, they would have to be a professional making at least $60,000 a year. Anything below that, and it would be hard to afford a mortgage.”

Even Smith says that while more accessible credit has been a significant factor in increasing home ownership among single women, such options do not work for everyone. “I just did an FHA [Federal Housing Authority] loan where the buyer only had to put 3 percent down, and another [loan] had 0 percent. In those instances, their mortgage was the same or lower than what they were paying in rent. But going with 100 percent financing doesn’t make sense if they were in over their heads and couldn’t afford the monthly payments,” she says.

Still, Smith says she has seen women with relatively modest incomes and diligently collected savings make the leap to home ownership based on a stable career, and plans to stay in Hawaii for at least a few years. “Some of my single female clients are school teachers who have saved up a bit and are now able to live near their jobs—they’re ecstatic.” Properties Unlimited Realtor Rodrigues says that three of the five single female clients she has had were nurses.

Elementary-school teachers, nurses, police and firefighters are among the job categories favored by federal housing incentives administered by the state, such as the My Community Mortgage Program, according to Steve Garcia, a Wells Fargo home mortgage consultant. The qualifying or back-end ratio—the amount of pretax income that goes into the house payment plus other monthly debt payments—is calculated more favorably for those in the listed professions.

And what if the real estate market goes south? “I tell them it doesn’t matter, if you’re not flipping,” says Smith. “Worst case, if you have to sell five years from now, say you have to move, you’ve already had the benefit of living there. If you can’t sell it at the price you want, you can always rent it out until the market comes back” She adds, “Women get it—you’re not going to have a house with a yard for your dog the first time out, especially in Hawaii—you just have to get into the market. Once they get the bug they don’t hold back.”

WHAT WOMEN WANT

There’s no shortage of products in the marketplace targeted to women, but what about real estate? Aside from everything penciling out financially, what do single women purchasers look for in a home?

  • Security: This was number one for Ray Kaneshiro. She says: “I was looking for a secure building [downtown] with parking, and I also checked the sex offender Web site. I eliminated one building that I thought was okay, after finding out someone listed on the Web site lived there.” One factor that single males may not think of as a safety feature: an in-home washer and dryer. “I work long hours, so I didn’t want to have to take my laundry down to a Laundromat late at night.” For Hayashi, security meant knowing her neighbors. “I knew other people who lived there, since I had gone through the MBA program with them at UH, so it made it easier to think about living there,” she says.
  • Space: For Kaneshiro, that meant a bigger kitchen than the one she had previously, which wasn’t much: “Big enough to open the fridge and open the door.” Claire De la Cruz is slightly more ambitious: “When you come home, you want to de-stress. If you’re in a small cramped space at the end of the day, that’s very stressful,” she says. It’s a belief that led her to at least consider living farther away from town.
  • Storage: “Closet space — women tend to have more stuff, so storage was important,” says Kaneshiro. De la Cruz says, “Having lots of cabinets in the bathroom and kitchen-guys don’t think too much about storage.”

• Livable Condition: “The condition of the place had to be good,” Kaneshiro says, adding that she’s not intimidated by places like Home Depot. “I could fix some things, but I didn’t want to [do major repairs].” This presents a potential business opportunity, says Realtor Shannon Smith. Many of her single female buyers, particularly single mothers with limited time on their hands, could benefit from a one-stop-shop for minor repairs. Smith says, “Right now, finding a reliable contractor is done through word of mouth. The Realtor often ends up helping that person find a contractor.”

 

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