Is the future of Canadian homeownership female? Statistics from the US show that single women are purchasing homes in record numbers — and they don’t need anyone to “put a ring on it” to make it happen. In 2016, data from the National Association of Realtors revealed that single women made up 17 percent of the American market, purchasing homes at twice the rate of single men. After couples, single women were the second largest demographic of homebuyers in 2016.

While there is little current comparable data for Canada, Nicole Wells, the vice president of home equity financing at RBC, is one Canadian woman who emblemizes the trend. After a divorce, she originally wanted to find a rental for herself and her three children but nothing was quite right so she took the plunge into solo homeownership. “Much like other Canadians who make choices based on their budgets and what they can afford, I made a decision to live in a townhouse condo. Plus, I didn’t want to have to take care of the lawn by myself, or worry about the roof, or shovelling snow. I made choices that fit my lifestyle,” she says.

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Sandra Rinomato is a Toronto-based real estate broker and the host of the show Buy Herself — where she offers her knowledge and expertise to single women who are ready to buy their own homes. “I’ve been doing this for 24 years. I have seen an increase, but it’s always been a thing that nobody has really highlighted,” she says.

Despite the fact that, on average, women earn considerably less than men (26 percent less, according to Statistics Canada’s most recent data), women are poised to become an influential segment of homeowners in Canada. We’ve come a long way, considering that just 58 years ago we couldn’t get a mortgage loan without a male co-signer.

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Ladies left off the property ladder: a brief history.

Up until the early 1960s, banks deemed it too “unstable” to give women loans, as they expected responsibilities at home to pull them away from the workforce. Vancity in British Columbia was the first Canadian financial institution to offer loans to women without a male co-signer in 1961.

“There were women who wanted to or needed to buy property on their own and they couldn’t. They couldn’t get a credit card on their own, couldn’t get a car loan. You certainly couldn’t get a mortgage without a male co-signer,” says Rinomato. “Even if they had their own career, and they could prove they were making the money, it didn’t matter. The changes really happened when banks started to recognize that 51 percent of the population was untapped.”

At this point, women were still not awarded equal division of property if the marriage dissolved. Historically, women could only take ownership if their husband placed the home in their name or they provided all or part of the purchase price. A family law case in 1975 changed this. Irene Murdoch was married to a rancher in Alberta. When she left because of domestic violence, the Supreme Court of Canada denied her any equity on the home — despite her years of labour on the ranch, on top of the housework and childcare that kept the family and business afloat. There was an outcry across the country that prompted changes to provincial matrimonial property laws — giving both partners equal rights to property acquired during the marriage.

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The future (of real estate) is female.

Times have changed — especially among first-time homebuyers and older women.
Women are earning more than ever before, despite the prevalence of the gender wage gap in Canada. “The rise of females being more financially independent and the rise of women in the workforce has driven them into the housing market,” says Wells. Today, more women are earning bachelor’s degrees than men. In 2016, women accounted for a slight majority of Canadians with a doctorate degree for the first time, which is leading to more lucrative careers. We are also marrying later in life, so the likelihood of purchasing a home alone is much higher. “People are waiting longer to get married,” says Wells. “Women want to be independent. Even though they’re not married, they want to have their own place.”

In 2018, there were 2.64 million divorced people living in Canada who had not remarried. On top of that — women are living longer than men (the average life expectancy in Canada is 79 for men and 83 for women). The US report from the National Association of Realtors found that the largest percentage of single female buyers were over 72 — the statistics showed the number of women buying goes up with age, while it drops for single men. “We’re seeing an increasing number of homeowners who are looking to downsize,” says Wells. “It could be from the desire to have less maintenance on your property or to simply not need as much space.” In addition, Wells points out that many downsizers are tapping into the equity on their previous properties to top off their retirement fund and/or give their Millennial children a boost.

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Belief systems around single homeownership are starting to shift.

Homeownership has traditionally been seen as a rite of passage after marriage. But with more women waiting to get married — or choosing not to get married at all – homebuying timelines (and the associated stigmas attached to them) are beginning to change.

“I was raised by Italian parents. They never told me that I should strive for financial independence,” says Rinomato. “I was expected to meet a guy and get married and then he would take care of the bills. It can be tough to shrug it off, even living here in Canada.” Rinomato still encounters women who don’t believe it’s possible. “It’s simply because of the belief systems you were born into. I think that in the last ten years, it’s really started to shift.”

Throughout Rinomato’s career, she’s heard this sentiment repeated: “I’m afraid to take the leap. What if a partner comes along?” Building on the show Buy Herself, she has a book coming out with sage advice for single female buyers. “The book is centered around real estate, but really, it’s about goal setting and overcoming your false beliefs,” she says. “You are whole, you are complete the way you are. If you buy now it may not be your dream home that you would want to live in with a partner and kids. But you can certainly get your own nice little place and start building equity on it.”

With Rinomato’s encouragement, many of her clients have taken the leap. The consensus? They all wish they’d done it sooner. “I find that once women have done it, I visit them a few months later and they tell me, ‘Oh my god, I’m saving up for my second one. Why did it take so long for me to make a decision? I could have done it three times by now.’”

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More women see property as a good investment… and they’re savvy when it comes to saving.

Studies show that women are viewing property as a good investment — and they are savvy when it comes to budgeting for it. “What we’re seeing is that 73 percent of females see property as a good investment, versus 81 percent of the total population,” says Wells. “What else stood out for me is that 45 percent of females would not put themselves in the position of being house poor, compared to 51 percent of the total population. So while they see that buying property is a good investment and they are taking the plunge — they’re willing to wait a bit.”

Despite being quite an old statistic, an RBC poll from 2012 indicated that Canadian women were less likely to take a variable mortgage, compared to men (16 percent of women versus 25 percent of men). If you get a fixed mortgage, the rate you settle on will be your rate for the entire term of your mortgage — meaning your monthly mortgage payments will always be predictable. A variable rate will fluctuate based on what the economy is doing.

“I think that translates to how women approach their budget. They want to make sure they know what they’re paying every month. Now, I don’t want to paintbrush everybody because there are women who take that risk, but I think it fits — especially if you’re a single mom, you probably want to know what your budget is going to look like every month,” says Wells.

Wells has developed leadership and diversity programs and has seen how risk-aversion can play a role in women’s decision making. There’s an old statistic that says women will only apply for jobs when they are 100 percent qualified, whereas men will jump at the opportunity when they meet just 60 percent of the qualifications. Now, imagine that instead of a new career, you’re about to make the biggest purchase of your life.

Rinomato repeatedly sees men stretch their budget for a place they really like, whereas women are more likely to crunch the numbers and stay within that hard limit. “I see men who will happily stretch because he thinks, ‘I will just make more money. I’m not worried about it.’ But a woman will be the exact opposite — which goes against the stereotype that we can’t manage our money.” She has witnessed women be frugal, almost to a fault. “They will let the pennies hold them back from achieving their dream. They get very nervous because they’re the sole income earner. They worry they can’t afford it. But they’ve saved up a wad of cash. And they still don’t know if they can do it.”

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It takes a village to raise a family buy a home

Regardless of your gender, understanding what you can comfortably afford and rallying your team will help lighten the load. “My sense is whether you’re a man or a woman, it goes back to understanding what you can afford,” says Wells. “I don’t know about you, but the two times I’ve had to sign on the dotted line as a first-time homebuyer, then as an individual (even having been in the industry for 20 years) — it’s scary,” she says.

“When you’re by yourself, it helps to make sure you have your circle intact — your mortgage advisor, your real estate agent, your family. Make sure you have that network to help you feel supported. And do your numbers to make sure you know what you can afford — test drive that mortgage and that budget. As a single individual, you probably need to take a little more of a pause to make sure you’re in the right place,” says Wells.

Another secret weapon for the single homebuyer? A trusted contractor. “When my child ripped the faucet out of the wall and water was pouring at 10pm at night, I knew who to go to and how to fix it. It’s about getting that trusted circle even after you buy,” says Wells.

“Buying a home is a huge accomplishment, especially if you didn’t really believe that you could or should do it,” says Rinomato. “And then they do it and think, ‘I can tackle anything.’”

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