Decision time

Sometimes a casual question makes a person stop and think. Cynthia Pontier had been living in rental apartments since college graduation in the mid-1980s. When Lissa Weinstein, a tennis friend and broker associate with Sudler Sotheby's International Realty in Chicago, asked her why, Pontier didn't have a ready answer.

"She reinforced my own question and started my decision-making process," Pontier said. "Why was I living in an apartment at my age? I started going out casually to see what was available."

Today Pontier, a technology project manager, lives in a two-bedroom condominium. Along with numerous other single women, she took the plunge and bought a home of her own.

"The reason I was able to buy was that I had dispensed with the notion that I had to have a husband to own a home," Pontier said. "And purchasing a condo did not preclude marriage. I treated the purchase as an investment decision."

According to a study by the National Association of Realtors, between July 2005 and June 2006, 1.76 million single women bought homes. That's 22 percent of the home buying market, up from 14 percent a decade ago.

"Women aren't sitting around waiting for a man to buy them a house," said Marla Hori, a Realtor for @properties in Chicago. "They are charting their own courses, and buying a home gives them a sense of accomplishment."

That wasn't true 30 years ago. In 1978 Hori and her husband were selling a condo and buying a house. Hori went to the bank by herself to inquire about bridge financing. The banker, assuming only a married woman would be involved in such a real estate transaction, asked about her husband's profession, not hers.

Today single women home buyers are treated like everyone else.

"If you can meet the mortgage payments, they'll give you the mortgage," said Anne Drougas, associate professor of finance and economics at Dominican University in River Forest. "Buying a home is a way to establish yourself financially and build equity. You can sell it if you need money to finance your retirement."

The number of single women buying property has increased for a variety of reasons. First, women today are better educated, have better jobs, and therefore have the money they need to invest in homes, Hori said. They recognize the financial benefits of getting a leg up in the real estate market and building equity.

Women have a growing sense of economic independence and they have access to more financial resources that make it possible to buy a home, said Ann Russo, program director, women's and gender studies, at DePaul University.

"Singles used to say they wanted the flexibility of being able to move, so historically they rented," said Alex Chaparro, vice president of sales at Sudler Sotheby's International Realty in Chicago. "But real estate is a sound investment and it doesn't have to be long-term."

Julie Friedman bought her first condominium in 2002. She decided to buy because she hated the idea of throwing money away on rent. She owned the condominium for two years, then sold it for a profit.

"You can't say that after two years of renting," said Friedman, a nurse. "It also afforded me a down payment on my next condo which I bought in 2006."

Second, society views women differently today, Russo said. "There is the construct of women being more independent personally, and there's less of a raised eyebrow if you aren't married in a traditional way by a certain age."

Cindy Davis is in the process of buying her first condominium. Having worked as a flight attendant for nearly 20 years, she has lived all over the world, and now is preparing to set down roots in Chicago.

"I kept thinking Prince Charming would come along and say, `Cindy, I'm going to take you to live in my castle in Italy,' but that didn't happen so I thought, I have to make a home for myself," Davis said.

Third, the concept of the nuclear family has changed, Russo said, as has the definition of "single." Today there are many different kinds of families and relationship structures that result in women buying homes in their own names.

For instance, a woman involved in a long-term relationship with a man or with another woman may continue to define herself as single. Her partner may own a home, too, in another part of town or a different part of the world.

Fourth, the desire to "nest" influences women's decisions to purchase homes, said Peg O'Shea, a realtor at @properties in Chicago. They want to fix up their own spaces, so that they represent their personalities. And many are ready and eager to do the necessary work themselves.

After college Karen Gross lived in her parents' suburban home for almost six years while saving money to buy a place of her own in the city. Despite the grueling commute she chose not to rent, having heard too many bad rental experience stories from friends. Finally in February 2007 she bought her dream home, a one-bedroom condominium overlooking Montrose Harbor.

The apartment was affordable in part because of its status as a fixer upper. Gross set to work with a friend gutting the place. She tore out a wall, hung new kitchen cabinets and painted. She bought new appliances, ripped up carpeting and paid to have hardwood flooring installed.

"It's a struggle on a single income to buy something in Chicago," said Gross, a graphic designer who estimates she saved about $12,000 doing so much of the work herself. "But I knew I was investing in something and in time I'd make my money back and be able to move up to a two-bedroom and so on."

What Do Women Want?

Sigmund Freud may never have figured out what women want, but realtors know.

Single mothers buying homes want good schools. When Suzan Jardine, a retired project manager, bought her house in Oak Park in 1999, the decision was based in large part on the great school district and the diversity of the community.

Outdoor space is important, too. Access to a rooftop deck added to the appeal of the condo that Pontier bought. She is thrilled to have a place where she can set up a table and chairs and grow tomatoes.

The layout of the home and its flow are very important to women buyers, said Saify Talib, a realtor at Baird & Warner in Oak Park. His clients place nice kitchens at the top of their requirements lists, along with closet space. Talib said women tend to focus on what he calls a home's "utilitarian" aspects such as parking and in-unit laundry facilities.

Security is definitely a priority. A garden level condominium may be an affordable option for a first time home buyer, but Mary Carlin, a realtor at Baird & Warner in Oak Park, couldn't interest women buyers in two that she recently had listed. Both were owned by men and bought by men.

"Single men buy flashy places to impress women, like studio condominiums in the John Hancock Center," Carlin said. "Single women buy comfortable places in neighborhoods where they feel safe."

For security reasons, women often choose condominiums. When Julie Collins, a school administrator, was house hunting, her preference was for buildings with character in relatively busy neighborhoods where she would feel safe walking at night. She settled on Oak Park for its urban sensibility and relaxed atmosphere.

Constance Cook took a different path. A confirmed renter for decades, when she eventually decided to buy a place friends told her to get a "nice" condo. That way she would have people nearby and avoid many of the responsibilities that come with home owning.

"I thought, wait a minute, why do I need people around me? No one would say that to a man," said Cook, a lecturer in the college of business and public administration at Governors State University in University Park. "I've been taking care of myself for years. A condo would be exactly what I had [in a rental apartment] except no one could tell me to move."

Cook bought a 2000-square-foot 1958 ranch house. She wanted space to roam in, mature trees and lots of grass, and that's just what she got.

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Buying tips

Anne Drougas, associate professor of finance and economics at Dominican University in River Forest, recently bought a town home. She is very satisfied with her purchase and offers the following tips:

*Don't be pressured to pay application fees to get the mortgage pre-approval process going.

*Look over all paperwork carefully before signing

*Keep your credit report clean by refraining from other major purchases while you are home shopping.

*Ask sellers lots of questions.

*Take photos of the properties you visit.

*View potential properties at different times of day.

*Hire the best home inspector.