Women & Homeownership: An Overview

By Lauren Rosales, Content Writer

Relative to human history, women have not been legally able to own property until rather recently. At the tail end of the 18th century, white married women in New York and Maryland had the slight benefit of being consulted by a judge before their husband was permitted to sell or transfer property that had been “hers.” In Massachusetts, married women might be allowed to conduct business sans husband, if that husband were on a prolonged absence–out to sea, for example. It wasn’t until New York’s 1848 Married Women’s Property Act and the 1860 Act Concerning the Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife that (white) married women were enabled to conduct business independently and maintain sole ownership of gifts received. Other states followed suit, so that by the dawn of the 20th century, married women had the ability to control their own property.

Yet, until 1974, many credit cards required a woman’s husband to co-sign. And it was perfectly acceptable not to issue a credit card to a single woman simply because she was a woman and did not have a husband to provide that signature. This limitation is representative of other frequent obstacles women faced on the quest for financial independence and equality.

Today, many obstacles remain. This blog post is concerned with gender and homeownership in particular, but because the home is, for so many, the largest asset, discussions of homeownership and finances are often tangentially related, if not downright intertwined. After all, without credit and the ability to save, how can anyone put a downpayment on a home and obtain a mortgage loan?

Here’s the skinny: this year, women continue to earn $.82 to every $1.00 that men do. This statistic is uncontrolled–which is to say, it compares the median salaries of all men to that of all women. The controlled pay gap, which measures the median salaries for men and women with identical jobs, qualifications, education, etc. is smaller, but still present: $.99 to $1. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated some gender disparities in the workforce, from the employed number of women without college degrees, to the amount of hours women worked.

According to a report by the Urban Institute, between 1990 and 2019, the number of “female-headed homeowner households” grew from 15.7 million to 39.2 million. Here at Unison, we have likewise noted an increase in the number of women using our services to access their home equity–the growth in the number of single women receiving Unison funding per month is roughly 230%! The basic context for this growth seems fairly straightforward–with more women entering the workforce, more women have established incomes with which they can purchase homes. Moreover, as the pay gap has decreased (though it nevertheless remains), women’s homeownership has increased. Plus,in the past few decades, the traditional family structure has undergone reconstructive surgery as gender norms continue to be challenged. Before the pandemic, for example, the number of stay-at-home-dads was on the rise, and 64% of mothers were the primary breadwinner in their household despite living with a partner (the number was even higher for Black and Latinx women).

Bottom line: the number of homeowners who identify as women has greatly increased in the last few decades. Single women, in fact, comprised 22% of homebuyers in 2020–single men, alternatively, made up only 9%. One factor for this particular statistic is that women are earning more college degrees than men; another could be that women tend to take fewer financial risks.

However, despite their increased homebuying and homeownership rates, a Yale study shows that single women are paying approximately 2% more for homes, and selling them for about 2% less. These numbers may seem small, but over a period of time they result in an overwhelming gap in wealth accumulation. In addition, women pay higher mortgage rates in 49 states (Alaska is the exception) despite the fact that single women are statistically less likely to default on a mortgage payment. Over the course of a loan, women are routinely losing up to $7,000.

What could be the reason for this disparity? In the past, a stereotype persisted that women are generally averse to negotiation. This logic has long been employed to explain that women are paid less than men because they do not ask for raises. However, more recent studies of women in the workplace reveal that women don’t shy away from negotiating their salaries–it just doesn't work for them. (In fact, women often suffer blowback for raising the subject because their assertiveness is seen as off-putting).

When it comes to home prices, the abovementioned Yale study demonstrates that men tend to time the market more effectively when shopping for a home. But this is not surprising when there are 368% more single-mother households than single dads, as single parents are much less likely to have the luxury of waiting for ‘the right time’ to buy a house. Men are also reportedly more likely to invest in routine housing maintenance as well as upgrades, fetching a better sale price. Due to the continuing pay gap, it makes sense that men have more income to dispense on such projects.

One study suggests that women are less inclined to shop around for lower mortgage rates, instead choosing a lender based solely on recommendations. Moreover, women often have lower credit scores–another side effect of that persistent pay gap, which results in women borrowing more in general. The mortgage market frequently uses "black box" models, of which Inside Mortgage Finance CEO Guy Cecala opines, “any sort of black box basically discriminates against single borrowers, lower-income borrowers and borrowers with lower credit scores.” This kind of one-size-fits-all algorithm actually does not fit many minority borrowers, women included.

One of the best tips for women who are looking to buy a home is to consider many options for mortgage rates from different lenders, in order to find the fairest ones. But it’s also always excellent advice to save scrupulously for a future downpayment, and work on increasing one’s credit score. If you know you will likely sell your house in the future, be sure to practice routine home maintenance to ensure a fair selling price.

Of course, there are many aspects of “home” beyond pure buying, selling, and ownership. A deeper analysis would interrogate domestic labor, for example, and the troubling fact that married women perform twice as much of it as their husbands–in fact, heterosexual wives who are the primary breadwinner tend to take on even more housework. In addition, it’s difficult to consider the persistence of the gender pay gap without acknowledging the extensive and problematic history of women’s relationship to the home. Residual gender norms unarguably continue to inform the ways that we think–and legislate–about the domestic sphere. However, this blog post may serve as a place for all of these statistics and their attendant issues to be collected together, as a basis for future deeper discussions.

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