Susan, a professional woman in Chicago, was quite uncharacteristically swept off her feet by a fantasy. She thought she wanted a little lilac-smothered bungalow in the suburbs.
Finding the house was the easy part. But after she moved in, she learned a lot about homeownership, and about herself. She discovered that she didn't have time to track down repairmen and garden helpers. Her work, her friends and her social life all were centered in the city. She felt isolated and frustrated. She unloaded her dream house, lilacs and all, and hurried back to happiness amid the tall towers.
Last years singles like Susan bought one of every 11 homes sold in the United States, according to Builder magazine. The forecast is that they will buy a lot more as the 1980s progress, becoming the fastest-growing segment of the housing market.
There are 58 million single adults -- four of every 10 women, three of every 10 men. Young professionals, single parents, the widowed, the divorced, the retired -- they share with each other, and with couples, all the usual motives for wanting to buy a home; ranging from emotional needs, like Susan's, to tax benefits.
Not all, or even most, singles go through the revolving door like Susan. But when Kristelle L. Petersen was an editor at Better Homes and Gardens, she noticed in her travels that single, unknowledgeable home buyers were having many distressing experiences.
At best, they felt like pawns, caught up in the complex game of real estate.
At worst they were cheated and victimized by unscrupulous agents, sellers, lenders and providers of settlement services.
Petersen's first response was to found a national consumer magazine called How to Buy a Home. And now she has compiled what she has learned in "The Single Person's Home-Buying Handbook" (Hawthorn-Dutton, $7.95).
She says, after months of travel as she researched her book and talked to thousands of single homeowners, that the biggest and most common pitfall is the failure to do the necessary homework.
Only by being thoroughly informed about the market and the complex process of property acquisition -- and by knowing what their rights are -- can single buyers escape intimidation and discrimination, she said.
Petersen, who is in the midst of moving to Dallas to take a new job, is taking some of her own advice. She intends to rent for a while, while she goes through real estate legwork, and then hopes to buy an older house in a turnaround neighborhood and "rehab" it herself. She contends that many of the best housing bargains still are in such older neighborhoods, where the houses are large and well built and sometimes can be subdivided.
There always will be challenges, as any single homeowner can verify. Margaret, newly retired from a busy professional career, is delighted with her little house on San Francisco Bay, but says did not realize how time-and energy-consuming a small garden could be. She greatly values the retired cabinetmaker in the area who made all her built-ins and can be called on at any time for maintenance repairs. People like him, she said, who are expert and always available, take the sting out of running a house alone.
Since buying a home is a highstakes purchase, take the time to learn the real estate process and the specific place and purpose of each professional who takes part in the transaction -- broker, builder, lawyer, insurance agent, etc., so you will not lurch from crisis to crisis or make major decisions based on impulse, emotion or hard-sell techniques. Single people, the author has found, often fail to grasp the complexities of the deal and feel confused by the terminology.
Chart a very rational course for scouting for a home. Think through very carefully what your lifestyle is, what your values are and what your basic needs may be. Do you entertain a lot? Require guest bedrooms? Want a maintenance-free home? Insist on a fireplace, basement or attic?
Then make a list of those things that you consider absolutely essential to your complete sense of home, and those things on which you feel you could compromise. Keep this list with you at all times and stick to your priorities as you evaluate properties.
Educate yourself to your local housing market without the pressure of a broker or agent at your elbow.
She lists as "real homeowner resources" those good neighbors with whom you reciprocate favors and assistance, the Yellow Pages and the classified ads in local shopper newspapers.
Mildred and Nancy, two single women who bought a house together in the Southwest, have bought some do-it-yourself books on basic plumbing, basic electrical wiring and laying tile floors. Like most other homeowners, they've done a lot of their own painting, but also have worked hard to find the best and more efficient workers to carry out their more ambitious renovation projects.
As for the satisfactions involved with successful homeownership, Petersen says she has seen people come into a fuller sense of their identity when they have found their right home setting. The right home, she has observed, enhances and enriches its owner. It can prove an extension and reflection of his or her personality, besides offering privacy and the chance to structure one's own environment.
And there always is the encouraging fact that homes, generally, have been appreciating at an annual rate of 12 to 15 percent.
Kristelle Petersen's prime 10 points for a single buyer to think about are these:
Familiarize yourself with all the types and locations of homes available in your price range. Read real estate sections of newspapers, shopper publications and community real estate booklets. Let friends, relatives and work associates know the type of housing you are looking for.
Look at model homes and go to open houses to see the range of going prices. Cruise through neighborhoods, and when you find one you are comfortable in, stop and chat with a few residents and inquire how and why they like it.
Figure out your home-buying budget well in advance, because homeownership requires most singles to make a sacrifice and to trade off some travel and other leisure-time pleasures for the joys of "a place of my own."
Since monthly housing costs probably will double when you buy a home, it is important to calculate how much of your income you can allocate to housing. On the average, single buyers who paid rents between $260 and $390, make monthly house payments ranging from $500 to $640. If you would feel trapped by your own house, don't buy.
Examine all types of housing, including co-ops, condominiums, town houses, patio or zero-lot-line homes, single-family houses and less expensive older homes that could be rehabilitated. Check out advantages and disadvantages of each.
Check mechanical and electrical systems. Find out if there is consumer-protection legislation in your area. Consider the energy efficiency of each prospect, find out if it is well insulated and constructed, what the utility bills may average, what the taxes might be and how stable the surrounding neighborhood is. All these factors will affect your pocketbook and the manner in which you live.
When you find a house that pleases you, hire a good home inspector to check it out and give you a report. Engineers, architects and members of the American Society of Home Inspectors usually are qualified to do this job, and charges may run from $50, or less, to $200, depending on the time involved and whether written reports are required.
Join the expert on his inspection tour over the property, if possible, so you can see and understand what is good and bad about the wiring, plumbing, structure, etc. Do not, the author warns, depend on well-meaning friends and family members for adequate inspections.
Consider transportation costs very carefully, since gasoline and public transport commuting costs have risen steeply and can add greatly to living expenses and to frayed dispositions when a lot of time and wear and tear is involved.
Really think about whether you have the time or inclination to do yard work, or the money to have it done. Lawns and gardens have proved a defeating aspect to some single homeowners who did not rightly reckon with the requirements of upkeep. Assess, too, how handy you are with tools and a paintbrush, and how willing you may be to make minor household repairs.
Having all those unending upkeep chores done by outside labor can quickly drain a lot of cash from the till.
If you use a broker, get all the professional guidance, counseling and information that they are able to give, so you have a full and complete picture of the housing possibilities in your price range and understand how you can best finance your choice of home.