The Rise of the Older, Single Female Home Buyer
Unmarried women over 55 is one of the largest, and fastest-growing, demographics of home buyers. With longer lifespans and careers, many look for homes with ‘no bad memories’
Ms. Hoffman said her new home is giving her a chance to ‘start from scratch.’ Photo by THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
By Katy McLaughlin
Leah Hoffman was looking for a house to start the next phase of her life. She doesn’t need a lot of space, and being single, she only needs to please herself. She says she found exactly what she was looking for in a $1.7 million home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., which she moved into in January.
The life phase Ms. Hoffman is starting? She is 60 and divorced, with grown children. She sold a wealth-management firm she founded in 2007 and is now ready for something new. “I’m totally starting from scratch,” she says. “I like change.”
Since 1981, single women over 55 have been the fastest-growing demographic of home buyers when compared with a multitude of other categories, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by Ralph McLaughlin, founder and chief economist at Veritas Urbis Economics in Alameda, Calif. Married couples are by far the largest group of home buyers, and single women the next largest group. But last year, single, older women made up 8.2% of all home buyers, roughly double the percentage of 20 years ago, Mr. McLaughlin says. These women also buy homes at nearly twice the rate as their male counterparts.
Three Single Women, Three New Homes
There have long been many more older single women than men, reflecting the fact that men remarry at a higher rate after a divorce, as well as the fact that men generally die at younger ages. But the dramatic increase in home purchasing by older women speaks to something else. Many women in this place in life want to own a home of their own, says Jessica Lautz, director of demographics and behavioral insight for the National Association of Realtors. Ms. Lautz also notes that longer average lifespans—and people working until later in life—are giving older buyers the confidence to take on a 15- or 30-year mortgage.
Ms. Hoffman, echoing the sentiments of others, views her purchase as more than a financial transaction. “There are no bad memories in this house, and I’m going to try hard not to create any,” she says.
In the late 1990s, Ms. Hoffman and her then-husband built a family home in Paradise Valley. Raising two sons, the couple designed a 6,000-square-foot house with a wing of bedrooms and a play area for the boys. Because she spent about 60-hours-a-week running her own company, a location near school, a grocery store and a dry cleaner was paramount. After divorcing in 2005, Ms. Hoffman moved into a 5,000-square-foot Paradise Valley house so her children could remain in the same school district. That house is now on the market for $1.475 million.
She then decided to downsize to a house that was easier to take care of. Finding her new place wasn’t easy, says her agent Joan Levinson of an eponymous brokerage in the area, as most Paradise Valley homes are larger. Eventually, Ms. Hoffman found a 3,200-square-foot, two bedroom with a separate, one-bedroom casita. Near restaurants and shopping, it has a landscaped garden and views of Camelback and Mummy mountains. Ms. Hoffman says she left behind all her old furniture and commissioned custom pieces, aiming to “start from scratch.”
Mary Jo Valentine Blythe and her then-husband raised three children in a 7,000-square-foot home in the upscale Chicago suburb of Hinsdale, Ill. They divorced in 2005, and seven years later Ms. Blythe bought an 8,000-square-foot home in Vail, Colo. that she and her now-grown sons, avid skiers, consider their “family home,” she says. She waited until her youngest son graduated from high school to put the Hinsdale home on the market, she says, selling it in 2016. That same year she also sold the corporate event company she built over 25 years.
Next, Ms. Blythe moved to an $8,000-a-month, two-bedroom rental in Trump International Hotel & Tower in downtown Chicago. The rental introduced her to a “completely different life,” she says, putting her close to restaurants, upscale shopping and bike rides alongside Lake Michigan. Her only qualm was the monthly outlay for a home she didn’t own, she says.
So in June, Ms. Blythe, now 56, put down a deposit on a $3.2 million, four-bedroom condominium in Renelle on the River, an 18-story building currently under construction near the Trump Tower. Her new apartment keeps her in the heart of the city, “where I can walk everywhere,” she says.
A year ago, Ms. Blythe met a man with whom she is in a relationship, she says. As it happens, he lives back in Hinsdale, the suburb she left, where he is raising two teenagers. Ms. Blythe says she has no plans to return to the suburbs. “I’m done with that chapter,” she says. “I want to be part of something that’s more energized.”
“Multigenerational homes,” or places where aging parents, adult children not ready to leave the nest, and children under the age of 18 can co-habitate are in high demand among “buyers in their early 50s,” says Ms. Lautz of the NAR. That is roughly what Laura Ackerman was looking for. After ending a 33-year marriage, she was planning to move out of her Bay Area home of 20 years.
“Over the holidays, my kids sat me down and told me they wanted me to move to the East Coast,” says Ms. Ackerman, 57. At first, she laughed it off, but later started to dwell on it. Two of her children live on the East Coast and a third lives in Spain, she says.
Influencing her decision was the fact that eight years ago, her youngest son fell out of a tree and nearly died of a traumatic brain injury, Ms. Ackerman says. He recovered and is a healthy young man finishing college, she says. But the experience taught her to “never take another day for granted,” she says.
In April, Ms. Ackerman closed on a $1.75 million Colonial on 5 acres in Mendham, N.J., where she had gone to high school. The 7,000-square-foot house has six bedroom and seven bathrooms—ideal for when her three children and her mother come to visit. Someday, when there are spouses and grandchildren, everyone will be able to gather, she says.
Still in the process of unpacking, Ms. Ackerman says she is looking forward to joining a church and book club, strengthening relationships with old friends and taking advantage of proximity to her children.
“I definitely feel that the fresh start has given me a new lease on life.”
Write to Katy McLaughlin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the June 29, 2018, print edition as ‘A New Life, a New House.’