Date: February 19th, 2012 8:49 PM
Author: hairraiser toaster
FEBRUARY 18, 2012
For Women, Is Home Really So Sweet?
Singles have been buying up houses like never before—but it may be time to rethink the American dream
By KATE BOLICK
My father is a small-town lawyer of the old-fashioned variety, by which I mean that he cares about his clients the way a pastor does his flock. Most days he gets up from his desk at noon and strolls the seven or so minutes downtown to Angie's Diner—that's four minutes for travel, three for all the helloing and how're-the-kids-doing that transpires whenever he goes from point A to point B in the Mayberry-esque town of Newburyport, Mass.
For the first time in centuries, the majority of U.S. households are headed by unmarried adults, at 51%.
When he learned that a newly divorced friend and client, Norma (not her real name), was looking to buy a house, he drafted a memo for her weighing the pros and cons. He understood that she wanted to launch her new life free of ghosts and to establish a secure foothold in the world, but he wasn't convinced that homeownership was the way to do it. He sent a copy to me, his unmarried, apartment-renting daughter, in case I ever found my thoughts traveling in a similar direction.
Single women have been buying homes like never before—a development that my father has seen firsthand, given that his bread and butter is real estate. In 1981, six years after the Equal Credit Opportunity Act made it illegal for lenders to discriminate according to sex or marital status, single women represented 11% of all homebuyers. That figure reached a peak of 22% in 2006, although it has dropped a few percentage points since then, due to the economy. Meanwhile, single male homebuyers have held steady around 10%. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, over a three-year period in the early 2000s the value of single women's home purchases added up to more than $550 billion.
Unmarried homebuyers are often making a poor investment decision, partly to feel more 'settled.'
Such a trend would seem the very image of female empowerment: a single woman buying a home of her own. Whether a middle-age divorcee or a professional in her 30s who has bypassed the marriage-and-baby track—for now, at least—she's seizing control of her life through real estate. In his eye-opening new book, "Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone," Eric Klinenberg interviewed quite a few of these women and found that, "Buying a home has become a powerful way to pivot from one life stage into another. It's a signal, to themselves and those who know them, that they are ready to invest in themselves."
This all sounds liberating, but is it really? That so many single women are proud to invest in themselves, and have the means to do so, is obviously an encouraging development. But I'm skeptical of the idea of anyone buying a home to "signal" his or her arrival. Homeownership, like marriage, is so encrusted with cultural projections and unquestioned assumptions that surely at least some of these women who have figured out that they should marry later (if at all) are unwittingly transferring a desire to feel "settled" or to be considered "grown up" into buying a house because "it's time"—which is to say, swapping out one piece of conventional wisdom for another.
Just as the "marriage crisis"—the fact that we are marrying later and less—has given us the opportunity to rethink traditional marriage as society's highest ideal, the housing crisis is our chance to reconsider the centrality of homeownership to the national psyche. Buying a home still works for many people, but it should no longer be taken as the embodiment of the American dream.
As Mr. Klinenberg sees it, the rise of solo dwellers represents the biggest demographic shift since the baby boom. For the first time in centuries, the majority of U.S. households are headed by unmarried adults, at 51%. The subjects of his seven-year study are the 31 million of these single people who live by themselves—that's roughly one out of every seven adults—comprising 28% of all households, even more than the nuclear family.
In small towns like Newburyport, these ranks are filled mostly by those like Norma—the divorced or widowed. Most young adults (ages 18-34) who live alone gravitate toward urban centers like Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, and they are the fastest-growing group, with five million people today as compared with 500,000 in 1950. In this age cohort, women are outpacing men in both education and income, across the racial spectrum.
Buying a home makes great economic sense for some of these singles, male or female, but not for all of them. In his memo to Norma, here's how my father breaks down the balance sheet: Buying offers "the ineffable qualities of ownership"—that is, presumed emotional rewards—but at the cost of immobility, lost investment returns and continuing expenses (taxes, insurance, repairs, maintenance), which, for a $300,000 house in Newburyport, add up to $18,000 a year, or $1,500 a month. That is for a single-family residence bought for cash. Condos, in his opinion, are merely "buying into trouble; just one difficult owner can be a costly misery" (though he concedes that large complexes with professional management have much less potential for problems).
Renting, by contrast, offers more pros than cons: greater mobility, no continuing costs, no maintenance responsibilities and investment returns on money not spent on ownership—which, in Norma's case at least, could likely cover her rent. He cites the downsides as "no ineffable qualities of homeownership" and "other tenants." (The mortgage tax deduction gives a slight break to homeowners, but not so much as to make a real difference, and generally only those with high incomes itemize their deductions anyhow.)
Last I heard, Norma was resolute in wanting to buy—and, despite meddlesome and unsolicited Bolick opinions, this may be the right decision for her. But it's hard not to wonder if those "ineffable qualities of homeownership" aren't clouding her judgment, at least a little, the way that society's dictate of marriage so often distorts our experience of relationships, pressuring many of us to marry because we "should," even when we shouldn't. As my father's daily routine suggests, even a small town's sidewalk culture can be a rich source of belonging and community.
What most of us look for in a home—a sense of security, safety and comfort—can be found without making such a major and complicated financial investment, one that, as the housing crisis has proved, can too easily end in calamity.
—Ms. Bolick is a contributing editor at the Atlantic and culture editor of Veranda. She is the author of the forthcoming book "Among the Suitors: Single Women I Have Loved."