More singles move into the housing market

The traditional route to homeownership - marriage, then mortgage - is losing a lot of traffic these days.

Low interest rates and good salaries are prompting a growing number of singles to shorten the rental stage or bypass it altogether so they can beat a quick path to the American dream.

One-third of people buying their first homes are single - twice the portion of just 10 years ago. And in some areas, the average new homeowner is younger than 30 for the first time since Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.

Owning a home has long been an important indicator of self-sufficiency linked to families. "What is new is ... people in earlier life stages doing it," says Tamara Hareven, a professor of family studies and history at the University of Delaware in Newark.

It's a sign of just how golden the economy is that so many singles - who typically have been less appealing to lenders - now earn enough to qualify.

It also hints at a new level of financial savvy. "I'm seeing more planning and saving,... and more people leave their parents' home directly to a purchase, without that middle ground or growing period," says Toni Sherman, a Chicago realtor and president of the national Council of Residential Specialists. Living with their parents for a few extra years, of course, is sometimes part of the strategy for saving.

Singles who can afford a down payment often find the financial logic persuasive enough to outweigh doubts about taking on the responsibility. "I realized that if I wanted to live alone, I would be paying a lot more in rent than I would in mortgage payments," says Ruthanne Gilbert, who bought a condominium five years ago in Scottsdale, Ariz.

In many ways, she was a typical first-time single buyer, according to a survey of 20 major real-estate markets in the US conducted each year by the Chicago Title Corp. She had just turned 30 (two years younger than the national average) when she put down 12 percent and took out a 30-year mortgage.

A small inheritance enabled Ms. Gilbert to buy just a month after she started pursuing the idea, but the average first-time buyer spends about two years saving. Also, according to the survey, first-time homebuyers have an average household income of $57,200 a year and purchase $165,000 houses.

Another financial advantage is the plump federal tax refund she receives each spring. Unlike renters, homeowners get deductions typically worth about 25 percent of their mortgage payments, says Frank Machovec, an economics professor at Wofford College in Greenville, S.C.

The wave of single homebuyers is the newest twist in a general century-long trend toward more-accessible home loans. Even for married couples, buying homes was difficult at the beginning of the century, when down payments were one-third or even half of the total cost, says Mr. Machovec. But just as banks decided working-class people were loanworthy starting in the 1920s, they have largely dropped the notion that being unmarried means being unstable. Married people do get an extra point or two when they are evaluated for credit, he says, but many singles earn enough to qualify.

The high number of single homeowners may also reflect more people living together without marrying. Increasingly, even couples who plan to get married buy a house a year before the wedding, says Ms. Sherman.

Many young people find themselves pulled back to their hometowns. A year-and-a-half ago, after leaving a job and traveling for 15 months, Lisa Zaccheo visited her parents in Connecticut and decided to stay. Although she is managing director of an ad agency, Ms. Zaccheo's passion is pottery, which she now has room to make in her Farmington home.

"I can paint it all purple if I want," Zaccheo says, expressing a common feeling among homeowners that the freedom is well worth the responsibility.

And that responsibility can seem less daunting once peers, whether married or single, go through the process of buying.

Anne Spencer, a publishing design director in her mid-30s, says her friends in Boston "made it look easy." Although she had been saving for four years, she resisted buying because her parents had spent 30 years in the house where she was raised. Finally, she says, "I realized that just because I buy here doesn't mean that I need to live here for the rest of my life."

But for others, putting down roots is the point. "I had moved every two years for the last 12 years. When I moved to Boston it was a really conscious decision of mine to settle down," says Tom Freund, who recently bought a condo in the city's North End.

Owning has "kind of allowed me to get serious," he says. "There's things I'm doing now that I always thought were going to be part of a lifestyle that I'd adapt to after I'm married." For one, it puts him in the market for home furnishings. "I finally went out and bought a nice set of dishes!"

The verdict is still out on how much homeownership changes singles' involvement in their communities. For her part, Gilbert is president of a homeowners' association in Scottsdale and is excitedly watching her property value grow as a golf course goes in next door. Mr. Freund, on the other hand, says he hasn't gotten as involved. "I haven't moved into vigilante homeowner mode," he says.

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