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The new home buyer

Women aren't waiting for Mr. Right: A growing demographic in real estate

Valeri Hauch, Toronto Star

There was a time when women felt they needed their MRS. degree before they felt educated enough to buy their first house.

But changes in the workplace have seen all sorts of shifting in social mores. Women are marrying at older ages, assuming leadership roles in business and politics and taking on virtually any job challenge. (And of course, recently there was the shocking news that Mattel's Barbie is ditching Ken for a West Coast dude - can a custody battle over the dolls' pink dream house be far behind?)

In the real-life housing market, too, there have been shifts in buyer demographics in recent years.

While the majority of purchasers are still married couples, there's a significant and growing segment of single women buyers, according to many in the housing and financing markets.

Mortgage consultants Paula Roberts (Mortgage Intelligence) and Romana Bozic (Invis Financial Group) both say they've noticed "significant'' increases in single, female homebuyers. Roberts says "about 25 per cent'' of her clients are single women, a figure that has definitely grown in recent years.

Bozic, herself, is part of the demographic change.

There was no Mr. Right in the picture when she decided to buy her first home on her own, a small condo, about six years ago when she was 30. In fact, she jokes that had Mr. Right come along at that point, there wouldn't have been any room for him to move in.

"I would've said, you can stay over but you'll have to leave in the morning,'' she laughs.

Bozic recently sold her condo and purchased a three-bedroom townhome, adding it will be "easy to put Mr. Right in that.''

When she originally bought, Bozic felt it was a good time to make such an investment. She'd worked out the figures and knew she could make the payments. "Women are more independent now, they're more strong willed," she says. "They've become good investors, they're good at saving money and they have the income to support mortgage payments. If they can afford it, I say, what are you waiting for? Live your life. You can buy a house and wait for Mr. Right.''

For Vaska Micevski, 38, buying a 1,200-square-foot rowhouse in Little Italy about five years ago was a natural evolution. "Once I hit 30 I started thinking about buying a house. It was the way I was brought up.''

Micevski's family emigrated from Yugoslavia and she was raised to think of a house purchase as a good investment and one that she should work toward.

"It was never linked to marital status,'' she said.

A nurse practitioner who's working on her PhD, she figured she could afford the payments but still went over all possible costs and scenarios with broker Bozic, who'd been referred to her by a friend and who "acted as the voice of reason.'' By the end, she felt confident she could make a purchase and afford the payments.

The man she was seeing at the time also "encouraged'' her. After only four days of looking at houses she knew right away that this sturdy house, built in 1911, was it. With help from family and friends, she took down walls on the main floor, painted, put in some electrical fixtures on her own, did some fancy faux painting on the kitchen countertop, rebuilt a section of the back deck, including varying levels for planters, and had new, wide plank hardwood flooring installed.

The latter exercise was proof of Little Italy's reputation for being a warm community with neighbours who look out for each other.

Micevski was out in her backyard talking to a neighbour and mentioned she wanted to put some hardwood in on her main floor. Almost before she could say "grazie'' her neighbour had arranged for a flooring guy he knew to contact her and the next thing she knew the flooring she picked out, was installed.

All her renovations have come in under $10,000. The house that cost her just over $200,000 is now worth about $400,000. But aside from the fact that she made a good investment, Micevski is tickled pink by a house she loves to walk into at the end of the day, the colourful community, the neighbours who go the extra mile (like the retired gentleman neighbour who walks a lot, noticed a workman in her house one day when the door was open and asked him, "does Vaska know you're here?'').

A big believer in leaving her car home as much as possible, Micevski walks to her work at a downtown hospital more often than not and cycles a lot. She says buying a house is "something I'm very happy I did.''

Holly Rasky had always rented before buying her $300,000-plus Cabbagetown rowhouse this past December.

"I never thought I could afford a house. But then, I started doing research. And I felt like a fool for not buying sooner.''

When her landlord told Rasky her rent was going up, she decided that was it, she was going to look into buying a house for herself and her roommate Marcus, a little African hunting dog (his only request - a bit of a backyard).

After about six months of searching, she found what she was looking for, a modest, two-storey, two bedroom, Victorian house with parking, a front and backyard and high ceilings which "needed some work - there'd been a bad renovation in the '70s.'' But she knew it had a "lot of potential.''

For financing, she first got a quote from her bank "but the rate didn't sound competitive.'' A friend referred her to mortgage consultant Paula Roberts "who was able to lock me into an amazing rate and gave me a lot of support.''

Rasky's real estate agent, Gisle Cline, included as a gift a session with colourist Sylvia O'Brien of Colour Theory. She came into the house and talked to Rasky about what she wanted, discussed furnishings and then made some suggestions for wall colours. The results - a vibrant palette of reds and yellows'' - have been "beautiful'' and have resulted in many compliments.

She did some renovation projects herself ("I now own a lot of tools and the guys at Home Depot know me by name'') and acted as her own general contractor - getting bids and co-ordinating trades - for bigger jobs, with new hardwood flooring probably the most expensive element in an overall renovations bill of about $25,000. But the effect was well worth it.

When a pipe burst this winter, she discovered how nice her neighbours could be. One is a contractor and he came over and was "a huge help'' in solving the problem.

What's more, she loves the area. "I don't feel lonely in this neighbourhood,'' says Rasky, who has set up a sunny, second-floor office at home where she works as a lobbyist for a major company.

"It was a big leap of faith - I can't say I wasn't worried thinking about buying a house on my own. My parents were worried - but now they think I'm brilliant,'' says Rasky.

She's also got that flush of pride that comes with home ownership. "I already planted some bulbs. And I pay a lot more attention to what's going on in politics ... property taxes, hydro, and what's going to happen.''

For Jackie Laidlaw, buying a home last year at age 44 just felt right. She's not married and has no kids but decided "it was time to put my money into a house.''

But the location of her new three-bedroom, 1,300-square foot home - in Wasaga Beach, on a waterfront lot with a boat slip - was particularly important. to the provincial employee who maintains an apartment in Toronto and commutes on weekends.

"For the same price as I bought in Wasaga (between $200,000 and $300,000) I was looking at houses in Toronto. Then I realized I would be house poor with no backyard and nothing to do on weekends but sit on a tiny porch in a small two-bedroom house. So I looked outside the city where for the same price I got waterfront property with income-generating potential. I can rent it out in the summer and still use it for the other seasons - skiing in the winter and spring and fall.''

Laidlaw said that when she saw the house "it was a mess and smelled like dog.'' But the floors were pine and maple, the ceiling was tongue and groove cedar, the electrical was good and the heating was high efficiciency forced air gas - plus it had a fireplace. She knew she could fix what she didn't like. Since buying it she's painted, put in new light fixtures, "ripped off plaid purple and green wallpaper'' and more.

At 4:30 one morning "I knew I couldn't stand the soap-smeared glass doors on the bathtub any more so I grabbed a screwdriver and took them off.''

Laidlaw says that if she chooses to, she may retire there some day. In the interim, "it's a great investment.''

Anne Klar, a registrar at Alan Howard Waldorf School, was nudged into the real estate market. After 10 years of renting a home, the owner told her he needed the house back for his son. Klar either had to find another suitable property or find a house she could afford.

"At the time I felt quite vulnerable,'' she recalls.

The single mother of a 13-year-old boy, in her mid 40s, decided to buy her first home.

"I had to choose between buying something bigger with an apartment that I could rent, or something small and reasonably priced,'' says Klar. "I decided that with my workload and raising a child and taking care of a home I'd be better with something small.''

She bought a two-bedroom house, under 1,000 square feet in the Dovercourt and Davenport area for less than $250,000. "It's cute. It's a nice basic home. It's one of the last pockets (downtown) with good prices.''

As a housewarming "gift'' her brother, sister and sister's boyfriend painted the whole house for her. "It was a wonderful gift,'' says Klar.

She has some plans for redoing the kitchen cabinets and knocking down a wall to make the living room bigger. Her son has happily taken over the unfinished basement as a workshop for woodworking.

The neighbours are "open and friendly, the house is close to work and the area feels safe. "It suits our needs,'' says Klar, who adds that her real estate agent, Elizabeth Kennedy from Prudential, "really listened to me'' when she was looking for houses. Klar looked at about two dozen before finding the one she bought. "I saw it and I said, this is the house."