ANNAPOLIS – Melissa Sweeney, a 31-year-old associate marketing director at the University of Maryland, College Park, bought her first home in Odenton nearly three years ago.
Like many unmarried, professional women her age, Sweeney wanted to invest, as well as have a home to call her own.
Sweeney is one of a growing number of Maryland women buying their homes solo, mirroring a national trend.
Nationally, single women account for about 20 percent of homebuyers, up from 14 percent in 1995, and are the second-largest segment of homeowners in the country, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Between 1980 and 2000 the number of unmarried-female-headed households increased by almost 10 million, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
In 2000, about 10 percent of Maryland homeowners were single women, compared to 7 percent of single men.
Sweeney is typical of this trend.
“I was at an age in my life where I wanted to have my own place to go home to and take care of,” Sweeney said. “Basically, I was a single woman not dating anyone seriously, wanting to put my money in an investment for the future.”
Sweeney, who describes herself as career-oriented, admits purchasing her home was one of the most rattling experiences of her life, but also helped build her confidence.
“I had reached a place in my personal and professional and financial life where I was ready to do this,” Sweeney said. “It’s the most grounding experience — you have a home that is yours from top to bottom.”
For most Americans, homeownership epitomizes stability and security, and for women the experience is no different.
Physical therapist, Lena Johnson, 28, purchased her first home in July.
She wanted a place with a garage, three bedrooms and a minimal amount of yard space to maintain. Within six months she closed on an Upper Marlboro townhouse that matched her requirements.
“I love the fact that I have the freedom to own my own house,” said Johnson.
“I love the fact that I can, and I want to . . . and it’s so much easier for me to buy a house now than it would have been 10, 15 years ago as a female.”
With interest rates at a historic low, down from about 10 or 11 percent in the early 1990s to around 6 percent today, a large availability of first-time homebuyer loans, and the wage gap between women and men closing, purchasing a home has become much simpler for professional women.
In 2002, women earned 76.2 cents for every dollar a man earned, compared to 63 cents on the dollar 25 years ago.
“Home ownership represents the single, greatest, wealth-building opportunity for the majority of Americans,” said Laurie Strongin, senior director of wealth creation for the Fannie Mae Foundation.
“The opportunity to build wealth and build stability . . . is just as much a benefit to women as it is to men and families.”
Cindy Henneberger, a 44-year-old video producer who co-owns her Silver Spring home with another single woman, realized the benefits of sharing the cost of mortgage with a housemate.
Not only did it make purchasing a single-family home more affordable, but there were also tax breaks for co-owning her home.
Yet there are particular challenges women encounter when beginning the hunt for the perfect home.
Henneberger suggests many real estate agents assume single women don’t know what they are doing.
“Some Realtors do the same thing car mechanics do with single women,” Henneberger said. “They don’t give you the same type services they give to men because they don’t think you know any better.”
But Henneberger, who now owns her second home, suggests after you buy your first house, the process becomes a lot easier.
“Buying the first one is the hardest because you have all these concerns since you’ve never done it. It’s like trying to swim without taking swimming lessons, but finding out you can float.”
Henneberger suggests single women looking to buy a new home should get references on a good real estate agent from other women.
About 4,200 homes have been sold in the Maryland metropolitan area in 2004, up from about 4,000 in 2003, according to JoAnne Poole, president-elect of the Maryland Association of Realtors.
“The real estate market is very, very active and very aggressively being sought after,” said Poole.
Sweeney, who is now in a committed relationship and considering marriage, believes owning her home is an invaluable asset.
“I’m very proud to bring a house to the table,” Sweeney said. “Not to mention it’s very attractive to single men.”