HOMEOWNERSHIP RATES FOR FEMALE-headed households with two or more residents soared 21 percent between 1993 and 2003, according to the latest census data. These are not women living alone: Single, female households were up just 0.74 percent during the same period, and home-ownership rates for households headed by a female with no husband present increased by a little more than 11 percent.

According to research analyst Allegra Calder of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, higher incomes, delayed marriage plans, and mortgage underwriting standards that have relaxed to include nontraditional households have made it possible for women to join forces for home purchases. As these new, nontraditional households form, it is important to lay down a solid legal foundation for their operation, since the law does not work as quickly or as flexibly as mortgage products do. Attorneys advise that these purchases, called co-ownerships, should be based on written contracts and should include land trust agreements that spell out conditions if one owner dies so the survivors can avoid probate court. Partnership agreements should also cover insurance, expenses, investments, and the possibility of mortgage default.

As mortgage requirements have bent to capture extra business, nontraditional groups choosing to enter co-ownerships may increase, predicts Calder, especially in higher-cost markets where it is prohibitively expensive to buy a home on one income. By 2010, the number of women-headed households with no spouse will increase to 31 million, about 28 percent of all households in the country, according to Fannie Mae. Since 1950, households headed by women have grown fourfold, largely due to increased divorce rates, delayed marriage decisions, and longer life expectancies for women.