Married couples typically shop based on home prices. Single women are likely to discuss the monthly payment they can afford, such as: "I want my payment to be $1,500 a month," Douthitt says.
Solo female buyers may be financially conservative, she adds. "She might qualify for $2,500 but she's comfortable at the $1,500 payment."
They "tend to buy more frugally and focus on financial security," says Mollie Carmichael, a principal at John Burns Real Estate Consulting, which sells research and advice to the housing industry.
That frugality can be a matter of necessity. As a group, single women have less money to work with. Their median income in 2011 was $50,200, compared with $58,400 for single male buyers, according to the NAR.
"I definitely could have paid more," Ward says of her home purchase. She was working as a business analyst for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. She chose a two-bedroom unit because it would be easier to rent out and she wanted the mortgage payment and homeowners-association fees to add up to less than local rental rates, so she'd turn a profit if she became a landlord.
Musselman was 32 in 2005 when she bought her condo in Santa Monica, Calif. Her financial strategy also led her to buy a two-bedroom home. She wanted to be able to add a housemate if her income dropped. She chose to buy a home at the lower end of her budget, for an added sense of financial security. Anyway, she expected she'd soon be "partnered up and moving on to a larger home with someone else."
Ward also scaled back on her purchase because she was afraid she'd intimidate men she might want to date. "Women in the workplace today, in many cases being the breadwinner, I think some men may find it emasculating," she says.
It's not an uncommon concern, Douthitt says. When her clients worry that buying a home will ensure they're single forever, she tells them, "Just because you buy a home doesn't mean that you're not going to get married. Once you get married you can use it as an investment property, or sell it and move."
Some homebuilders and real-estate companies have conducted research to find out what women in general — and single ones in particular — want in a home. John Burns' research shows differences between the genders in homebuying preferences. Women, and single women, have distinct preferences. But "they're not super differences," Carmichael says.
Jessica Riffle Edwards, a real-estate agent in Wilmington, N.C., and Coldwell Banker Real Estate's consumer specialist, says men and women share many home preferences, as couples and singles do. They just differ in their priorities. Home security, for example, matters to everyone, but single women place the most value on it, Coldwell Banker learned in a survey.
For Ward, a house not located in a gated community was a deal-breaker. "I wanted to have that extra security of knowing that some random Joe Blow couldn't just enter and rob it. Living on your own … there is something about not having to worry that puts your mind at ease."
Musselman's experience was similar. "As a single woman, I wanted something on a top floor and with underground parking, for security purposes," she says. She might have found a bigger home with more amenities elsewhere, but she chose Santa Monica for its safety, convenience and the likelihood that a home there would hold its value.
Keeping home maintenance manageable is a top priority among single female buyers. When her clients don't grasp the work involved in owning a big yard or garden, Douthitt tries injecting a little reality. "I'll say, 'Are you sure?'" If that doesn't dissuade them, she advises, at least, that they include the cost of hiring someone for yard maintenance in their purchase budgets, since she's seen new solo homeowners overwhelmed by outdoor chores.
Single female buyers often are juggling demanding jobs and many have children, two reasons why they gravitate to condos and townhouses.
"I didn't want a full-scale single-family home because of the maintenance and the overall upkeep," Ward says. She'd watched her mother struggle to keep up the family home when she was widowed. Ward wanted a homeowners association that would do the landscaping and a home warranty "so that, if the dryer breaks, I am not flipping through the phone book trying to find someone to fix it."