Bay Area home owners are now mostly single women, outpacing men

Homeownership rates are shifting despite the fact that men still average significantly higher pay, and even though financial research shows U.S. women tend to pay more for homes but profit less from the sales.

The 49% homeownership rate for single women in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metropolitan area is 11 percentage points higher than the rate for single men — the widest gender divide in any large U.S. market, according to the review of 2020 census estimates by home improvement site Porch. In the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley metro area, home to the No. 5 biggest homeownership disparity between genders, the report found that around 46% of single women own their homes, compared to 36% of single men.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Morgan Hill real estate agent Robin Bezanson, who estimated that 30% to 40% of her clients are single women. “There are so many incredible women entrepreneurs and women in our area, and I think they see the stability in having their own home.”

The increasing buying power of women, and a parallel narrowing of the homeownership gap between men and women, is a decades-long trend driven by many factors, according to a 2021 report by the Urban Institute, including rapid professional gains, shifting romantic norms and an increase in multigenerational households.

While the number of female-headed U.S. households skyrocketed from 1990 to 2019, the number of male-headed homeowner households shrank from 44.4 million to 43.1 million. About 61% of all female-headed U.S. households owned their homes in 2019, a 10 percentage-point increase from 1990, the Urban Institute report found, though gains were much smaller for households headed by Black or Latina women.

Reports on the subject also focus almost exclusively on data broken into male and female categories, not distinguishing people who identify as nonbinary or transgender. Housing studies by Bay Area cities repeatedly show that LGBTQ youth and transgender people experience higher rates of housing instability and homelessness.

“Although there are real advances to appreciate,” the Urban Institute authors wrote, “it is not a simple picture.”

That’s especially true in the high-priced Bay Area, where overall economic inequality has widened during the same period. Buying a house is an inherently personal decision that can depend on any number of factors — income, school districts, proximity to family, aesthetic preferences — but the gendered data highlights an ironic byproduct of the region’s housing crisis.

Women still earn 78 cents for every $1 a male counterpart makes in San Francisco, and less than 2% of single women currently make enough money to buy a new house here, according to a recent Zillow analysis. But for those who are able to get a foot in the door, bidding wars and rapid increases in home values can actually help level the financial playing field, according to 2020 report by researchers at the Yale School of Management.

That’s because obstacles like volatile property values or gender bias in negotiations are less likely to arise in settings where homes often go to the highest bidder or sell off-market, said Yale finance professor and report author Kelly Shue.

“Women actually do about the same as men in very tight housing markets such as Manhattan or San Francisco,” Shue said.

Across the country, however, Shue’s analysis of some 9 million home sales from 1991 to 2017 where the gender of the homeowner could be identified found that U.S. women “buy the same property for 1-2% more than men and sell for 2-3% less.” Each year, men earn an average of 1.5% more than women off their home investments, the Yale researchers found.

Though it’s impossible for researchers to understand each homeowner’s motivations, Shue said one “pretty obvious reason” for single women to buy homes at a higher rate is because they are more likely to have a child or other dependent in the home, for whom they may hope to provide stability and a higher quality of life. The challenge, she said, is when these responsibilities, or other reasons, push women to sell homes when the market is not as strong; timing accounts for about 45% of the national gender gap in home financial returns.

Shue’s primary advice for female home buyers and sellers: “Figure out ways to negotiate less,” she said. “Women would also be better off holding for longer time periods.”

In Bezanson’s experience in Morgan Hill, single female home buyers tend to be Silicon Valley tech executives or business owners shopping in the $1 million to $3 million range. They’re often “very conservative” financially, looking for smaller two- or three-bedroom homes.

She’s encouraged by more female buyers finding ways to break into the market and make strategic renovations to increase the value of their homes, building wealth over time. But at the end of the day, Bezanson said, gender isn’t top of most area sellers’ minds.

“The people who are able to get in the market,” she said, “are the people who have those cash reserves.”

Lauren Hepler (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @LAHepler


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