WHEN Gayle Lucas moved into her brick and stucco house in Minneapolis four months ago, the recently divorced mother of three figured she would be the only woman homeowner in her neighborhood. So after settling in, Ms. Lucas was surprised to count at least five other single-women owners nearby.
"I know this sounds backwards, but I always assumed [buying a house] was just not commonly a woman's undertaking," says Lucas, who spent her married life living in a home not far away.
"For me, purchasing this place is probably the biggest step I've ever taken alone, and it's kind of liberating," she says.
Lucas's decision to go solo with her purchase of property reflects a national trend gathering momentum. According to the Census Bureau, the number of single-women homeowners doubled from 6.5 million in 1970 to 13.8 million in 1993. Single individuals now account for 26 percent of homebuyers, with single-women buyers outnumbering single-men buyers by a 3 to 2 ratio.
"One of the fastest growing segments of the home-buying market are ... single women," says John Tuccillo, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors in Washington, D.C.
"We take a survey every two years, and each time the share of single-women homebuyers goes up by a couple percentage points," Mr. Tuccillo says, adding that 2-percentage point increases have occurred since 1990.
Experts say economic and demographic factors account for the trend.
"More women entering the work force over the last 20 years and the opportunities that have opened up for women have given them the economic power to buy a home that they did not have 20 years ago," says George Karvel, holder of the Minnesota chair in real estate at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn.
Women are also postponing marriage longer than they have in the past. But instead of waiting to purchase a home until after they're married, they're deciding to take advantage of the tax benefits of home ownership now.
Higher divorce rates are also prompting more women to knock on the doors of realtors. And the proliferation of lower mortgage rates and loan programs that help buyers short on cash - typically singles and first-time buyers - is fueling the boom of single-women homeowners.
"I've seen the trend for the past five years," says Danese Anderson, past president of the Minneapolis Board of Realtors and a realtor at GreatMinneapolis Real Estate Company Inc.
"Women are independent; they're making their own income," she says. "They're choosing home ownership instead of renting."
Town homes and condos have been especially popular for singles, and women in general, because they offer the benefits of home ownership without the maintenance that goes along with it, such as mowing an acre of lawn or shoveling a driveway, Dr. Karvel says.
Some realtors and builders are starting to specifically target women, who in 1993 constituted about 16 percent of homebuyers, according to the National Association of Realtors. (Men accounted for 10 percent.)
Builders, for their part, are offering more choices of designs and amenities, such as custom-designed closets and a wide selection of kitchen cabinet styles instead of just one or two.
Experts say the trend of single women buying homes will likely continue.
"Women make up 57 percent of the labor force, and by 2005 they'll be 63 percent of the labor force," says Mary Zey, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
"They're moving into the work force at a much greater rate than males," so their ranks will rise even more, she says.