Home buyers in the Washington area are increasingly singles, mirroring a national trend, according to a new study of people who bought houses last year.

Meanwhile, home prices here and elsewhere leveled off substantially last year in the wake of slower sales throughout much of the country, Chicago Title and Trust Co. said in its annual survey of 18 housing markets across the country. For the first time in four years, income growth exceeded the growth in home prices.

In Washington, the number of singles buying homes rose to 16.6 percent of all buyers last year, up from 14.4 percent in 1989 and 11.1 percent in 1988. The number of purchases by divorced or separated buyers nearly doubled to 12.4 percent of all buyers in 1990 after a drop to 6.8 percent in 1989 from 10 percent in 1988. The percentage of couples buying homes in the area declined over three years to 69.9 percent of all buyers in 1990 from 75.4 percent in 1989 and 77.8 percent in 1988.

Nationally, single buyers played an expanded role in the marketplace. While home purchases by never-married singles rose in a three-year period to 16.5 percent last year from 15.3 percent in 1989 and 12.6 percent in 1988, smaller increases were posted by widowed, divorced and separated home buyers. The percentage of homes purchased by married buyers fell to 74.1 percent in 1990 from 76.1 percent in 1989 and 77 percent in 1988.

"When you look at the census figures, the age groups that comprise these first-time home buyers are not growing at all," said John Pfister, vice president of Chicago Title and Trust. "You would expect single home buyers to decline and they're not."

Census Bureau figures also showed that the percentage of the population that is single remained stable from 1984 to 1989. Pfister attributed the surprising growth to changes in tax laws that give singles fewer income tax deductions on their incomes, thus making the mortgage interest tax deduction on home loans more attractive.

"One of the main reasons I was able to buy is that I was able to take advantage" of the Housing Purchase Assistance Program, said Phoebe Andris, a first-time buyer. The D.C. government program helps low-income house buyers with down payments.

"The market also helped, {prices were} low and getting lower," added Andris, who closed on a house near the future U Street Metro on Dec. 31.

Another first-time home buyer who bought a home in Silver Spring last April also said the falling realty market helped him.

"I could not have bought the house at the price for which it was originally offered in the fall of 1989," said Stewart Hudson, 31. He said his decision was not influenced by other factors such as tax breaks. "I was just ready to buy a home."

Across the country, 1990 marked the first time in four years that income growth exceeded home price inflation.

While median household income among buyers increased 3.2 percent from 1989, the median price of a home inched up 1.1 percent, to $131,200 from $129,800.

As home prices leveled off, many repeat buyers found themselves unable to trade up to more valuable homes because often they could not sell their existing homes or could not obtain the profit they wanted to on their old house in order to move on.

Sales proceeds from their old homes contributed less to down payments on the new ones, the national survey showed. Nearly half of the money repeat buyers put into down payments came from personal savings, 1.6 percent more than in 1989 and nearly 11 percent more than in 1988.

The national median cost of a home for repeat buyers increased 3.2 percent to $149,400. Those trading up also spent more time looking for their home, averaging 4.7 months to search.

Washington area residents trading up looked at more houses (15.4 as opposed to 14.2 nationally) and spent more money (the median price here was $197,000). Repeat buyers in the area had a median income of $80,400, the highest in the survey.

This reason may be partly because Washington also has the highest number of two-income families buying homes in the survey. Ninety-one percent of the homes bought in this area last year were purchased by two-income families.

The average ages of home buyers here -- 33.9 for first-time buyers and 40.8 for repeat buyers -- were also slightly higher than the national figures.

Pfister attributed the high percentage of two-income buyers to the presence of the federal government. "With a disproportionate share of government workers in that area who are paid less than in private industry, more home buyers need two incomes," he said.

Mortgage payments continued to rise, in part because of a switch from adjustable-rate mortgages to fixed-rate mortgages, with higher initial payments. Monthly mortgage payments nationally now average $1,127, up $73 from the previous year. In the Washington area, monthly payments were slightly higher, averaging $1,248 in 1990.

The survey suggests that first-time buyers nationwide increasingly are being squeezed out of the new home market and are opting for older, less expensive homes. The number of first-time buyers of new homes has fallen to 15 percent last year from 23 percent in 1988.

Purchases of single-family homes fell both nationally and in the D.C. area. In Washington, purchases of condominiums and multifamily homes rose.

Different trends showed up in various regions. The Northeast region, where more than 40 percent of first-time buyers were unmarried, was the only area of the country where the median home price fell, to $154,800 from $156,500, reflecting negative employment growth in New York and Boston and very low growth in Philadelphia, Pfister said.

New home sales were down 1.5 percent in the Northeast region and 13.4 percent in the Washington area. However, the D.C. area showed an increase in the median price of homes sold, to $145,000 in 1990 from $133,300 in 1989.

"What surprised me is that prices in Washington rose as much as they did," Pfister said. However, he noted that the average price of a Washington home now is closer to the median, showing that the high end of the market is slowing down.

"I hate to say that the {Persian Gulf} War may be a good thing for the town," Pfister said, "but defense may come back and if so high-tech markets will follow." He said the rate of employment growth in Northern Virginia went to zero by the end of 1990 from 6 percent in 1989, but observed that unemployment was still fairly low in the Washington area. "Washington is a growth market, the other three cities {in the Northeast} are not," Pfister said.

The Midwest continued showing relatively stable housing prices and greater housing opportunities for all income brackets. Residential real estate activity in the South was strong though price appreciation slowed. Florida continued to attract buyers, and continued job growth in Atlanta -- where the 1996 Olympic Games make it likely to continue -- meant that the percentage of new home sales continued high, at 36.7 percent. In Washington, new home sales represented only 21.1 percent of the market.

In the West, despite a continued strong real estate market, the inflationary slowdown began to be felt everywhere except Seattle, where the average cost of a home has moved it from the bottom of the survey two years ago to seventh place nationally in 1990. The median cost of a home in Seattle-Tacoma climbed 21.2 percent in 1990 to $119,000, while the average rose 27.9 percent in the same year to $156,200.

Once again, San Francisco led the country in the median ($247,400) and average ($285,500) cost of a home, while Cleveland had the lowest median ($79,900) and Memphis the lowest average ($89,400). In the Washington area, the median was $145,400 and the average cost of a home was $188,500.

The median price, which is the point at which an equal number of homes sell for more and less money than the median, historically reflects a price similar to what most people pay for a home. The average price, calculated by dividing total home sales dollar volume by the total number of sales, tends to be unrepresentative because of extremes in the low and high ends of the price spectrum.

The 18 markets surveyed were Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington in the Northeast; Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Minneapolis in the Midwest; Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Memphis and Orlando, Fla., in the South; and Los Angeles, Orange County, Calif., San Francisco, Seattle-Tacoma, Denver and Phoenix in the West.

Median price of home purchased..........$131,200..................$145,400

First-time buyers........................106,000...................116,200

Repeat buyers............................149,400...................197,500

Average price of home purchased.........$160,500..................$188,500

First-time buyers........................131,200...................139,800

Repeat buyers............................181,700...................236,100

Average monthly payment..................$1,127.....................$1,248

First-time buyers.........................1,010......................1,100

Repeat buyers.............................1,221......................1,430

Average payment as percentage of income...33.8%......................33.1%

First-time buyers..........................36.1.......................34.8

Repeat buyers..............................31.9.......................31.6

Buying for the first time.................41.9%......................43.7%

Previously owned a home....................58.1.......................56.3

Average age of first-time buyers...........30.5.......................33.9

Average age of repeat buyers...............39.1.......................40.8

Average number of houses looked at.........13.8.......................15.4

Bought new homes..........................21.2%......................21.1%

Bought used homes..........................78.8.......................78.9

Bought single family houses...............83.8%......................76.0%

Bought multi-family homes..................3.0.........................3.3

Bought condominiums.......................13.1........................19.8

Bought co-ops..............................0.1.........................0.9 Married..................................74.1%.......................69.9%

Widowed...................................2.2..........................1.1

Divorced/Separated........................7.2.........................12.4

Single...................................16.5.........................16.6

Two-income families.....................76.4%........................91.2%

First-time buyers........................83.9.........................94.1

Repeat buyers............................71.7.........................88.2

Down payment as percentage of sales price

Average down payment...................23.3%.........................19.0%

First-time buyers.......................15.7..........................14.1

Repeat buyers...........................28.9..........................25.9

Type of mortgage financing

Conventional fixed rate................72.6%.........................79.1%

Adjustable or variable rate.............26.1.........................17.4

Seller financed or contract loan.........2.1..........................3.5

Other....................................5.2...........................NA

Average down payment breakdown (percentage of dollars) Of first-time buyers

Own savings and investments............77.9%........................72.8%

Lending institutions.....................5.3..........................8.3

Relatives...............................10.2.........................13.8

Others...................................6.4..........................5.1

Of Repeat buyers

Previous home sale......................38.0.........................42.5

Savings and investments.................49.1.........................46.5

Lending institutions.....................3.3..........................3.3

Relatives................................3.2..........................6.3

Others...................................6.4..........................2.4

Average number of years to save

First-time buyers........................2.5..........................2.4

Average family size......................2.8..........................2.2

First-time buyers........................2.5..........................2.1

Repeat buyers............................3.0..........................2.2

Median household income..............$60,600......................$66,900

First-time buyers.....................53,100.......................56,100

Repeat buyers.........................66,000.......................80,400

SOURCE: Chicago Title and Trust Co.