In February, BUILDER blew the cover off our first-ever national Internet-based survey on Generation X. This month, in part two of our three-part series, we zero in on the amazing 44 percent of respondents who are not married.
By Christina B. Farnsworth
Alone, paired, or alone again, a surprising number of Gen-Xers, aged 25 to 34, are not married. But that doesn't mean they are not home buyers.
Bite on this: Singles are more interested in buying new homes than their married brethren and may even have better credit ratings. The wants of the not-married differ from married Gen-Xers. What these willing singles lack is product oriented to their needs and major interest from builders.
The Cliff Notes answer to building for unmarried Gen-Xers goes like this: Build affordable. Build close in or within the city. Build near the places they go to have fun. Make the housing smart and green. Speak their language. Don't clobber them with a hard sell. And find a way to pump up the ability of these credit-worthy buyers to find that elusive down payment.
Read on to learn how this hidden market segment can be a major addition to your bottom line.
Ashley Christofferson-Cunningham has profited as a Gen-Xer building for Generation X. She is president of Brass Brick Homes, a 40-home-a-year Oklahoma City home building company (deliberately down from the 60 to 65 homes a year built in the past). She is also author of a forthcoming book on building for Gen-X. Forty-seven percent of her X-buyers are not married. And some of her Xers are already repeat customers. "I do the opposite of my competition," Christofferson-Cunningham says. "Our motto is 'demand different.'" And different for Christofferson-Cunningham is bold color and rich details. One model even sports leopard-patterned carpet.
Gen-Xers do demand different. They also have a "distrust of authority and a healthy skepticism regarding any sales claims," marketing consultant David Kipnis says. Builder's survey results tell Kipnis that Gen-Xers are "techno-savvy, fearless, impatient, and environmentally aware." Kipnis finds similarities between the findings of Builder's Gen-X survey and one he did for the sustainable community of Civano in Tucson, Ariz. Kipnis, principal of Phoenix-based Marketing Solutions, found that Civano attracted "Cultural Creatives," a breed of consumers that eschews labels and thinks themselves unique.
"Gen-Xers are significant for two reasons," Kipnis says. "Their numbers represent about 25 percent of all potential home-buying households--a significant market share. And, as with any reasonably discrete market segment, they must be communicated with in their own language."
Just as there is overlap between leading-edge baby boomers turning 55 and active adults aged 55 to 60; there is overlap between late boomers and Gen-Xers. "The second half of the boomers, born after 1954 now aged 35 to 46, represent 26 percent of the market," Kipnis says. "As children of the '60s, they line up more with Xers than older boomers in attitudes. These demographics combine for a huge market opportunity. The builder that can position product and messages to appeal to both will enjoy a major marketing advantage."
Of our 505 unmarried respondents, 292 (57.8 percent) identified themselves as single; 145 (28.7 percent) said they were living with a partner; and 68 (13.5 percent) were separated, widowed, or divorced. This last group certainly argues against deliberately choosing to be alone again through divorce. The single-again were the most desirous, probably the most financially needy, and the least able to meet their homeownership needs, based on their answers to survey questions.
Unmarried Gen-X respondents were less likely to live in a single-family detached home compared to all survey respondents (37.2 percent vs. 47.8 percent). They were more likely to live in apartment buildings (29.3 percent vs. 20 percent).
Seize the movement
Unmarried Gen-Xers are a mobile lot: 82.2 percent expect to move within the next five years, almost 58 percent within the next two years. Of those expecting to move within five years, 53.5 percent anticipate moving into a single-family detached home, and 34.8 percent say they'll buy new--a much higher number than married respondents. Ignore this market at your peril.
The 34.8 percent of the unmarrieds planning to buy a home within the next five years who say they'll buy new is significant, since the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports that nationally only 22 percent of all home buyers choose new homes. Just over 25 percent of our unmarrieds currently own their own homes. Unmarried Gen-Xer buyers purchased new homes over existing at about the same rate as married respondents; roughly 19 percent. However, of those identifying themselves specifically as single, 22.6 percent bought new over existing homes.
Woo without ballyhoo
We've already said Gen-Xers are skeptical. How do you attract the first generation raised almost exclusively on a diet of hype? Christofferson-Cunningham says, "My buyers and I don't want to be sold [get a hard sell]; we'll walk away." Gen-Xers who grew up on "Coke as the real thing" are turned off by what they consider manipulative and overt sales techniques. "We know what we are looking for," she says. "We want to be different. My salespeople don't sell in the classic way; they listen."
Single Gen-X buyers usually bring a relative or a friend to bounce ideas off of. They customize floor plans and add unusual details, such as a rock fireplace mantle and a curving front porch. "But we are practical, too. Gen-Xers want cost-effective designs. A bathroom is for bathing--make it practical," she says. Practical is storage located between two pedestal sinks--looks cool but functions."
"Gen-Xers want privacy, but they don't want a half acre of lawn to mow or a $150 water bill," architect Rick New says. Flexibility and practicality are key. Designing in what New calls 3-D over 2-D is important. Often it is not the square footage or the floor plan layout that is so different; it is window placement, nuance, and detail that attract Gen-Xers. They don't want windows for windows' sake, says New, a principal of Boulder, Colo., firm Downing Thorpe & James. Put windows where they matter rather than where the only view is the next-door neighbor's house.
New designs floor plans for Gen-Xers in which non-bearing walls can be easily changed to deliver no-additional-cost, customized space. "Take the single mom," New says. "You may have a plan with space that can either be a cozy den off a living room or a hide-a-way off the owners' suite. The single mom may choose the wall configuration that gives her privacy in the suite; another Gen-X buyer may choose the configuration that puts the square footage in the public rooms."
And build that house near where they play. It comes as no surprise, given a propensity to live where their social life is, that unmarried survey respondents are more likely to live in the city rather than in far-flung rural areas. Just over one-third (34.2 percent) of all respondents lived in the city, but 42.1 percent of all the unmarried respondents and within that 44.1 percent of single respondents were city dwellers. Roughly 18 percent of total respondents lived in rural areas versus 11.7 percent of the unmarried. Almost 41 percent of all urban dwelling respondents made less than $35,000 annually. Thus, unlocking in-town housing affordability can open the door to a big market.
Gen-Xers are comfortable in unconventional arrangements. Single may not mean living alone--less than half (46.9 percent) of the unmarrieds are the lone household adult. One-third of the single, divorced, or widowed Gen-Xers living with another adult reported they were living with parents.
Children do figure strongly into the equation. Nearly 60 percent of divorced or widowed Gen-Xers, as well as 42.8 percent of those living with a partner, and 17.6 percent of those who said they were single, had children living at home. More than half of the singles said the children were their own. However, single respondents as a whole are less likely than others to want to live near any children (16.1 percent of single respondents vs. 34.3 percent of whole survey) or their own parents (29.8 percent vs. 36.8 percent).
Green and happy
Married or not, Gen-Xers care deeply about the environment and the health of their houses--and are willing to fork over cash to prove it.
Not surprisingly, the unmarrieds are much less focused on family and more focused on personal fulfillment and careers than married respondents. Unmarried respondents placed much less emphasis on family than the Gen-X group as a whole (49.1 percent vs. 67.7 percent). The unmarrieds placed higher value on happiness and personal fulfillment than the group (49.1 percent vs. 39.5 percent). For the singles subgroup, happiness and personal fulfillment topped the list at 49.3 percent over family at 41.8 percent. Career/job also rated high at 41 percent for unmarrieds and singles compared to 31 percent for all respondents and only 23 percent for married respondents.
Instead of caring about the raw house size and number of bedrooms, unmarried Gen-Xers want lifestyle amenities, such as the right to have pets, a garden, and proximity to social and entertainment activities.
In terms of their amenities wish lists, proximity to restaurants (63.4 percent) and entertainment (42.9 percent) are the most important. This is a curious irony, as eating out less (69 percent) and brown bagging lunch (53.9 percent) are among the first economies respondents say they would make in order to buy a home.
Recreational areas such as parks and rivers (41.9 percent), beautiful views (36.9 percent), and proximity to employment centers (35.2 percent) are also important. But to afford a home, unmarried respondents would be willing to live farther away from shopping and entertainment (46.4 percent), attend fewer concerts and sporting and theatrical events (42.9 percent), or endure a longer commute to work (41.1 percent).
Room for work and play
On average, unmarried respondents expect to pay $155,000 for their next home, and most expect to buy an existing home (59.6 percent), particularly a recently updated or remodeled unit (34.2 percent). That home will have 2.95 bedrooms, with 1.95 of them to be used for sleeping. Although 89.9 percent of unmarried respondents want some sort of home office space in their next home, more of them would prefer a desk and computer in a multipurpose room (51.3 percent) to a dedicated home office (42.9 percent).
If given an extra 100 square feet in their next home, unmarried respondents would most want it to take the form of a computer area (17.1 percent) or an exercise room (13.3 percent).
Most respondents, including the unmarrieds, find fault with their current dwelling. Inadequate storage (39 percent) tops the list of unmarrieds' current homes' faults. The unmarrieds dislike their kitchens and bathrooms (33.6 percent), but complain less than their married counterparts about small room and house size and not having enough bedrooms. Strangely, they do cite lack of a yard more frequently than married respondents (28.6 percent vs. 15.9 percent). (See "What's Wrong With Their Current Dwelling" sidebar.)
Unmarried Gen-Xers compromise on dwelling choice primarily for financial reasons (79.5 percent), citing lack of a down payment (54.2 percent) or inability to afford what they want (55.4 percent). Almost
40 percent say they are simply not ready to buy compared to only 19.3 percent of married Gen-Xers.
Unmarried Xers were also more likely to have had down payment help for their current home than marrieds (22 percent vs. 15.6 percent). The unmarrieds who received help were given just slightly less assistance than their married counterparts ($5,431 vs. $5,810).
Fix and finish
In order to buy a more affordable home, unmarried respondents are willing to purchase unfinished space that could be finished later (45.1 percent), a fixer-upper (29.8 percent), fewer features (32 percent), or an expandable home--one with a floor plan that allows space to be added later--(31.7 percent). Nearly 30 percent of the unmarrieds and more than 32 percent of the singles would choose a smaller lot. Both Christofferson-Cunningham and New see these trade-offs in their own clientele.
Informality is high on the Gen-X house wish list. Though just over half of the unmarried respondents rated separate living and dining rooms as a four or a five on their amenity list, 83.1 percent would choose a big kitchen with large informal dining area over a small kitchen with separate formal dining area (16.9 percent). They would do the same choosing the large family or great room over a formal living room.
Unmarried Gen-Xers want practical things: extra counter space in kitchens (78.3 percent), abundant storage space (76.9 percent) and closets (77.8 percent), extra energy efficiency (68 percent), high-speed Internet access (72 percent), and a healthy house (66.7 percent).
Give them what they want
Builders' clearest competition for unmarried Gen-Xers is existing homes. The biggest hurdles are financial, lacking a down payment, and the fact that roughly 39 percent of the unmarried market simply isn't ready to own.
So, how do you get that unmarried Gen-Xer to buy--and buy from you? Unmarried Gen-Xers want to live in a location that suits their lifestyle; housing is a means to that end. Build housing with flexible plans and customizable details. Don't assume the young person strolling through your model is too young or not credit worthy and don't "sell" them. Builder's unmarried respondents claimed to have better credit than their married counterparts.
Provide lots of storage space. Make the home smart; make it environmentally healthy. Wire the home for instant access to media and technology.
Get into green easy by tying yourself into one of the national programs for healthy, efficient, or green-built homes. Third-party programs also help overcome buyer skepticism. Some communities, states, associations, and utilities have programs that have built reputable brands such as the nationally recognized Energy Star program or Tucson Electric Power's (TEP) Heating, Cooling Comfort Guarantee program. TEP's program estimates and guarantees the actual utility cost, so many home buyers are guaranteed a yearly annual heating and cooling cost of $1 a day; others certify indoor air quality or offer checklists for a healthier home.
Market your homes in places or media outlets targeted to where single Gen-Xers gather to have fun.
Since affordability is a real hook for unmarried Gen-Xers, an affordable, lifestyle-oriented community near these Xers' favorite haunts may even have them standing in line to buy.