Amy Gilbert recently bought a three-bedroom homefor herself in Wesley Heights. "It's a visible showing," she said, "that you've reached a certain level of success to be able to own your own home. It's a tremendous satisfaction to know that I did it all by myself."
Martha Cole Glenn had put some money aside for something not frivolous. So she bought a town house in North Arlington. "My salary was increasing," she said, "and since I never enjoyed living in an apartment, I decided I wanted to live in a house."
Amy Gilbert and Martha Cole Glenn are just two of a new generation of homeowners in the Washington metropolitan area that almost didn't exist a decade ago: single women. Real estate people call single homeowners, both men and women, the fastest-growing segment of the market. And it is the women who have advanced the farthest in recent years because of less-discriminatory credit rules, an increase in the number of women in higher paying jobs, greater social independence, more divorces and the trend to marrying at a later age.
In Washington's booming condominium market, a 1979 survey by the National Association of Realtors shows, single women accounted for 39.1 percent of all condominiums purchased. Single men accounted for 30 percent.
Nationally, an extensive study soon to be released by the Investors Mortgage Insurance Co. of Boston shows that singles now represent 24 percent of all homes purchase in the United States. And this 24 percent is about equally divided between men and women. In 1970, by contrast, single men and women purchasers of homes represented less than half of 1 percent of the market.
Overall, the number of single women living alone in the Washington area -- many of them as homeowners -- jumped 70 percent between 1970 and 1977, according to Census Bureau figures.
"In the five years that I was selling houses in D.C. [1961-65], I only recall once ever selling a home to a single woman," said William Ellis, director of residential sales at Shannon & Luchs. ". . . Now as soon as they are able to get a hold of a few bucks, they are buying a house."
Now, there are so many women buying houses on their own that the federal government has stepped in to help. In 1979, the Department of Housing and Urban Development undertook an 18-month project on women and mortgage credit to make available materials and information for women who were considering buying a home. A total of 450 women showed up for a free consumer forum sponsored by HUD this past March at the Capital Holiday Inn for a program called "Women and Affordable Housing."
Single women are even influencing builders' construction plans. "There's a return to a smaller unit," said Michael Sumichrast, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. "For the first time there are units being built under 400 square feet and I've even heard of Murphy beds coming back."
The opening up of the credit market for women has been a key factor, especially after the federal laws passed in the mid-1970s that ended blatant sex discrimination in mortgage lending. Although there are still complaints about extra investigations by bank loan officers for women mortgage applicants, these practices are so illusive in general that they are hard to pinpoint.
"The only discrimination that may exist in the mortgage field [today] would be a lingering vestige, a mental thing, in the attitudes on the part of maybe some of the older, more conservative officials in lending institutions," said G. V. Brenneman, president of Brenneman Associates Inc., a D.C. firm specializing in condominiums and cooperative apartments.
Brenneman said that many of the people who process mortgage applications are women, although the majority of the loan officers probably are still men. "But that gap is closing fast," he said.
However, a woman attorney for the Women's Legal Defense Fund said she still gets calls from women who have problems obtaining mortgage loans. "Creditors are still wary about women," she said, "and I would bet that when investigations are done on credit that they are done more extensively on women and the burden of proof is on the woman, especially a woman in child-bearing years."
As recently as the late 1960s, it wasn't unusual for mortgage lenders to require women to provide a doctor's certificate that they were incapable of having children or, if they were married, to automatically discount their salary by half in figuring out the mortgage eligibility.
Another factor essential to the growth in numbers of women homebuyers has been the increase of women in higher-paying jobs here thanks to government and government-related industries. The growing number of women lawyers, for example, has produced a new group of women who need the tax advantages of homeownership. Though women's salaries still lag behind men's, a large number of women in the Washington area earn enough to qualify to buy some form of housing.
Because single women are already in the majority in many high-rise apartments in the downtown area, when their buildings go condo it is a ripe opportunity for them to become first-time homeowners getting substantial discounts for tenants.
A new social atmosphere inspired by the feminist movement has encouraged many women to strike out on their own. There are also more divorced women today than a decade ago, some of whom are buying their own houses as they reorganize their lives. And with marriage not a foregone conclusion anymore, women are brushing up on their financial know-how and investing their money in their own property.
"I expected to be a rarity," said Amy Gilbert, who spent five years planning her town house purchase. "But I found that I wasn't."
An accountant with her own practice for more than two years, Gilbert, 36, said she had long been advising her clients to invest in property and, "after giving everybody advice, I decided I better do it too."
Gilbert, whose house is in an area where prices start at $172,000 said that she didn't want to be faced with discrimination in the mortgage market, so she "papered them to death" with her income and financial statements. She thinks that because of the large nunber of female professionals in Washington, there isn't the mortgage credit discrimination that may exist in another part of the country. "They know that women are here to stay," she said.
After renting for about eight years, Gilbert felt the time was right for her to buy, and many of her friends were also investing in homes. "I don't think it's changed anybody's life style," she said. "The initial 'can I handle it?' question is the strongest concern of most that I've talked with. Now most are relaxed and enjoy owning their own home. We still eat out and buy clothes and none of us have tightened our belts noticeably."
Most of her single friends, she said, have chosen to buy in the District. "If women can afford a home at my level, they are usually workaholics, at least a lot of us are, and to be able to afford that kind of home we work long hours. If you want to play at all, you want to be close in. We don't want to drive half an hour to the city."
Anita Henderson, 26, owns a one-bedroom condominium apartment in Southeast Washington. "It's like this is finally mine," said Henderson, a dermatology resident at Howard University Hospital who moved into her unit this January after leaving a house she was sharing. "I decided I was sick of paying rent and not being able to control my rental price," said Henderson, who decided to plunk a down payment on the $41,900 unit considering options all over Washington.
"I had considered a noncondo but I decided that I would be biting off a bit too much," Henderson said. "In terms of maintenance, I felt that I couldn't see myself coping with a house with my schedule. With a condo, if there is anything to be done you can call the office and they take care of things.
"The monthly payments are taking a bigger chunk out of my paycheck, but I'll get it back in terms of tax relief so I don't feel like it's going down the drain."
When Martha Cole Glenn told her mother three years ago that she was going to buy a town house in Arlington for $69,900, her mother couldn't believe she could enter into something like that by herself.
"I didn't really know exactly what I was doing," said Glenn, 39, a governmental affairs information manager for the American Petroleum Institute. "I just knew that other people had done it and that I could do it. She was concerned that I was going to get into something I might regret."
Glenn has never regretted it, except maybe the day she remembered that she had left her toaster oven on and drove all the way back from her downtown office to turn it off. "All I could think of," she recalled, "was the time I had left my stove on in my high-rise apartment when I was a renter and I simply called the desk and they turned it off for me."
Glenn feels that she had difficulty when she applied for her mortgage. "They wanted more and more information. I had had four responsible jobs over 10 years and I had a credit history. I had bought a new car and paid if off."
"I had never been questioned about my honesty before. I feel that as a woman I was discriminated against because they asked me more questions than a man. I was turned down by a savings and loan before being approved by another lender."
Jane Pierson McMichael, 39, is one of many women who have brushed up on complex financing facts and figures to try to keep one step ahead of mortgage lenders.
"I've learned more than I ever thought I would know about improvement loans, rental options, tax advantages, etc., from friends who have bought and sold a lot of property and have taught me how to do the numbers," said McMichael, who is in the process of trading up from her one-bedroom Adams Morgan condominium to a house in the neighborhood.
McMichael, legislative and political affairs director for the American Federation of Government Employees and former executive director of the National Women's Political Caucus, said more women need to learn the technical jargon. "If you don't, you won't realize the options that the rest of us have and will be trapped in one-bedroom apartments without ever owning anything of your own."
"A house is a statement that 'I can take care of myself. I will be okay. I can be responsible for myself and my own economic security,' And for a lot of women buying a piece of property, making the mortgage payments yourself, struggling with the air-conditioning man, fixing your own bookshelves gives you a real sense of personal power that is very fulfilling."
An executive secretary for 25 years, Pat DeVatz finally bought her own home in Alexandria in 1977 for $31,000.
"I decided I was 43 years old and if I didn't put my money into something, I was never going to be able to afford anything," said DeVatz, who ws sick of paying top tax dollars and not having anything to write off.
"I had saved money for a down payment but it was never enough. Being single, handling my own bills and responsibilities didn't give me a lot of room to buy a house," she said.
DeVatz, who says that her house could now sell for more than twice what she paid for it, said she doesn't intend to sell now. "By the time I'm ready to retire in 1998, I don't know if there will be a whole lot of Social Security for us to rely on. Barring a real estate crash, the house will be my nest egg for retirement."
Despina Kaneles, 33, was a legal secretary when her building, the Swarthmore in Foggy Bottom, was slated to be converted into condominiums. She became a president of her tenants' association in the fight, which ended with the tenants buying the building, Kaneles buying a one-bedroom apartment and then becoming an employe of the building's managing general partner, David R. Marshall and Associates.
"I loved my building, but I didn't want to be a tenant any more," Kaneles said. "It was the best way to ensure home security."
The security is part of the total feeling of accomplishment that many women feel as homeowners. "I don't know if there is a feminist word for landed gentry," said Ila Gillaspie, a real estate agent at Ann Pallie Ltd. "But there's a 'Ha! Ha! I did it' feeling for a woman in buying her own home. And I encourage all of those women who can to do it."