Wendy Wandyez was once a wanderer. She helped build highway bridges in Buffalo, N.Y., hitchhiked across America, and even sold Porsches for a living. Now the thirtysomething single has taken perhaps her most adventurous - and traditional - step: She's bought a house.
"I had never wanted to buy a house, because I was too afraid of being stuck in one area," says Ms. Wandyez, who works for the Dade County Water and Sewer department.
Long shunned by lenders and other financial institutions, single people have joined the growing cohort of first-time buyers, helping to make the 1990s one of the best decades for housing on record. Along with minorities - particularly Hispanic immigrants - they have fueled a recent boom that has brought the homeownership rate to 66 percent - the highest in history.
For most Americans, homeownership still is, as Herbert Hoover once said, "a more wholesome, healthful, and happy atmosphere in which to raise children." But with a robust economy and stable interest rates, it is also a way for many to build equity and set down roots, married or not.
"It used to be that people said, 'this is where I'm going to raise a family, this is where I'm going to retire,' " says Daryl Jesperson, president of RE/MAX International, a real-estate firm in Englewood, Colo. "Today, people are thinking more in terms of transitions. That degree of permanence isn't there anymore."
After years of solid employment gains, modest home-price inflation, and favorable financing, people traditionally left out of the housing market have been able to afford new homes. At the same time, many lenders are reaching out more aggressively to groups they'd traditionally turned their back on - particularly minorities.
To be sure, baby boomers buying bigger homes have helped fuel the latest real-estate rush. But experts say it's younger people as well as immigrants and minorities that will contribute to the next millennium's housing growth - many first-time buyers.
More single homeowners
Boosting the growth of first-time buyers at the moment are young unmarrieds. They're the same generation who, a few years ago, frowned on such a symbol of stability. "Their attitude tended to be, 'we don't want to be tied to a house,' " says Jesperson. "Now this generation is really starting to get into the foundation thing."
Yet young people today are buying with an attitude that reflects more pragmatism than sentiment. Young professionals have more disposable income. They have a greater array of housing to choose from, other than the traditional single-family home.
So buying a house no longer necessarily means "buying into a whole new lifestyle," says Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, who studies home ownership. "For young people, it's not an either-or decision anymore. They can go buy a town house or a condo, which is the same as living in an apartment."
And while they're buying independence and status, there's also a more down-to-earth benefit: a tax-deductible mortgage. Take Kristi Lamont. She does marketing for the University of Alabama's business school. She agrees that owning a house is "part of what a successful life is all about." She feels strongly about her hardwood floors, wood stove, and spiral bookcase.
But she also sees something else in her home. "There's the tax benefit," she says.
Today, women-headed households still own homes at a lower rate than the population at large - 50 percent compared with 66 percent. But more are now buying, including single women.
"Stereotypes are slowly melting," says Mr. Myers. Young, single women buying houses aren't seen as "an oddity, a risk on the part of lending institutions."
"I feel that women had a lack of confidence about their ability and financial means," adds Julie Gould of Fannie Mae in Washington. "That's changing, and it has the potential of changing even more."
Suzy Fleming used to think she wasn't ready yet for a front porch and all the pots and pans. She thought that would come later, with marriage. Yet she recently bought a three-bedroom house in Tuscaloosa, Ala. She wanted a yard and a dog - and was tired of paying rent to somebody else.
Oscar Murray's new home
Minorities, too, are buying homes in greater numbers. According to a recent study by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, they now account for 29 percent of new homeowners. Whites still own homes in a much larger proportion than blacks, but the gap is narrowing, experts say.
Immigrants like Oscar Murray explain why. For the first five years after arriving from Panama, Mr. Murray shared a small apartment with his mother. He worked hard: at a construction site in Miami by day, at a K-Mart by night. Today, before his 30th birthday, he owns a townhouse in a cookie-cutter development south of Miami.
"It was like a dream," says Murray, whose mother now lives with him.
More and more lending institutions realize that going after people like Murray makes sense.
Once ignored by builders, realtors, and lenders, immigrants and minorities are now hotly courted. Realtors and builders are advertising in Spanish.
Banks are also doing a better job of informing potential customers and luring them into buying, offering more mortgage options. It's possible to buy a house with very little down payment.
Some banks are offering cash bonuses to prospective buyers attending Saturday training sessions on budgeting and maintaining properties. "If I walk you through the process, I help you become a better customer," says Michelle Smith of the National Association of Realtors.
HOME OWNERSHIP IN AMERICA
* A record 67.6 million American families own homes, an increase of 5.8 million since 1993.
* Minorities account for 29 percent of growth in new homeowners.
* Between 1993 and 1996, 460,000 Hispanic families bought new homes.
* From 1993 to 1996, homeownership among the under-35 age group rose 118,000.
* Single women are more likely to own a house than single men. 56 percent of single women and 45 percent of single men own their own homes.
* Baby boomers, who are entering their peak homeowning years (age 45 to 54), have posted the largest jump in homeownership, with 1.3 million new owners.
Source: Census Bureau and The Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies