SINGLE men and women - divorced, widowed, or never married - now buy about one-quarter of all homes sold in the United States each year. Since the 1970s, they have been one of the fastest-growing segments of the home-buying market. One 1985 survey by the National Association of Realtors set the figure of single home buyers at 21 percent of total sales, while another survey, taken the same year by the US League of Savings Institutions, set the figure at 25.2 percent.
Several social trends are apparent. The number of people living alone is up dramatically. There are a lot more newly confident people who are willing to be single-person householders. It is now far more socially acceptable for young single men and women to buy homes of their own rather than wait until after marriage.
And many, weary of paying exorbitant rents with no equity to show for it, are seeing home ownership as an investment, a provision for the future. Others see it as a reflection of the growing status of singleness.
``After a lot of careful research,'' says Kristelle Peterson of Dallas, ``I bought a condominium apartment in an upscale yuppie condo community where residents had both the money and the interest to maintain a good homeowner's association. I like the condo life style because I am a city person and the busy head of my own public relations business with no time to worry over property maintenance.''
Because she thinks of her condo as her permanent home and had money from sales of a book, Ms. Peterson decided to splurge and furnish it exactly as she wanted. She hired an interior designer, visited decorator showrooms, and ended up with top-of-the-line furnishings in a style she terms ``soft contemporary.''
``My home, and the quality it expresses, is important to me,'' she says. ``I like feeling entirely comfortable in it and entertaining there often.''
Gerald Goldsmith, a young executive in New York, purchased his small Upper Eastside cooperative apartment for some of the same reasons. ``I wasn't at all ready to buy a house - I had neither the patience nor the time to keep it up. I like the idea of a co-op, because it means shared responsibility for the property. I liked the idea of getting into the real estate market and enjoying the value appreciation and tax benefits. I no longer wanted to be at the mercy of landlords.''
Since he once studied architecture, Mr. Goldsmith redesigned the space in his co-op to his own specifications, and then oversaw every detail of the renovation.
Karen Mamone, a writer from Hartford, Conn., says, ``I've been on my own long enough to know the importance of staking out your own territory. By now, I have a finely developed nesting instinct, which I am in the midst of transferring from a Victorian house with 12-foot ceilings to a dilapidated 150-year-old cottage in Ireland.''
She defines ``nesting instinct'' as ``having a feeling that I am going to be in a place for awhile, that it isn't a stop-gap environment on my way to something else. It involves a feeling of security and control and of being connected to a friendly space of my own.''
Ms. Mamone says she discovered long ago that if you don't like where you live, you spend a great deal of money not being there; you hang out at movies, restaurants, and museums. She is taking a year off to renovate the County Kildare cottage called ``Clatterbridge'' which she has been paying for in monthly installments for several years.
Her ``meaningful accumulations'' - portable enough to become the nucleus of her new Irish abode - include her collections of books, rare butterflies, and Japanese woodcuts. She will surround these gradually with eclectic acquisitions from Irish junk shops, barns, and auctions, just as she did in Connecticut. Eventually she will build a home, she expects, ``that will reflect well on me and convey the message to friends that I am an interesting person.''
``I looked at 65 places before I found my little two-story Colonial town house in D.C.'' says Barbara, a Washington-based journalist, ``and I must say that owning a house has made a big change in my life style. It has made me much more aware of colors and furnishings. I window shop more, because I am still upgrading some of my battered pieces to better pieces. I got most of my things from flea markets and junk stores, and I have probably entirely furnished my living room and dining room for about $1,300.''
Barbara, who feels she has learned to get a lot of look for not much money, built her entire color scheme of peach, green, and yellow around 17 yards of Schumacher Chinese-patterned quilted chintz on sale for $35.
The difference between being a renter and a homeowner, she says, is that she is now more careful of the property, more thrifty, and more conscious of conserving energy. ``I am a committed career woman, but I love being the owner of `little house.' I hate to leave it in the morning. I love sharing it with friends. It is my friend.''
Ruth Rejnis left Manhattan to buy a sturdy 1910 semi-Victorian house in a turnaround neighborhood in Hoboken, N.J. She shopped many neighborhoods, dropped by city hall to check out zoning regulations, and called the local real estate editor for advice. Having found the house she wanted, she had it professionally inspected, and then worked through a network of neighbors to find a good contractor.
``I knew nothing about homeowning when I bought my house,'' she says, ``but I have learned that most any woman can manage a house if she applies herself. I've learned how to snake a drain, change the fuses, scrape paint, wield a hammer, a screwdriver, and a paintbrush. And I have learned how to find and hire the right persons to do repair and replacement jobs on heating, cooling, and other mechanical systems.''
Ms. Rejnis's house is now worth many times what she paid for it, since Hoboken, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, is now considered ``hot'' real estate territory. Many of the things she has learned along the way are now between the covers of a paperback called ``All America's Real Estate Book'' (Viking/Penguin, $14.95). She co-wrote this lifetime reference guide to buying and selling all kinds of real estate.