Without anyone really noticing, it seems, the single-person household has become a significant demographic, accounting for 28% of all households—35 million homes—in the United States. The Wall Street Journal calls it “one of the biggest demographic trends of the past 50 years.” A confluence of economic, biological, and societal changes—people living longer, marrying later (or not at all), divorcing more, and having fewer kids, not to mention greater financial freedom for women—has conspired to create a ballooning and highly underserved segment of home buyers.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 120 million Americans—48% of adults 18 and older—were divorced, widowed, or had never been married in 2017, a substantial increase since 1970, when 39 million adults—29%—were single. As they tend to do, baby boomers are driving the numbers with divorce rates that have nearly doubled (and involve unprecedented numbers of second and third marriages) from 1990 to 2015, the Pew Research Center reports. Chastened, perhaps, by their parents’ example, more Gen Xers and millennials are forgoing marriage altogether; only about 20% of 18- to 29-year-old Americans are married, compared with nearly 60% of that same age group in 1960. By the time they turn 50, a full 25% of today’s young adults will have been single their entire life, Pew Research predicts.
Married couples have always ruled the housing market—and they continue to, accounting for 63% of recent buyers in the National Association of Realtors’ 2018 Profile of Home Buyers & Sellers—but singles are serious up-and-comers. Of the 120 million singles in the U.S., nearly 36 million—28% of all households—live alone, up considerably from 13% of households in 1960 and 23% in 1980. It’s a trend that doesn’t show signs of stopping, as professional services firm Deloitte predicts 41.4 million households will be headed by singles in 2030. Globally, single-person households are expected to outpace the growth of all other household sizes over the next 15 years, according to Euromonitor International’s “Top 10 Global Consumer Trends 2019” report.
Demographer Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, describes it as “a significant global demographic change having far-reaching consequences yet receiving scant attention.” Largely because of modern communications and social media, Chamie believes, it’s much easier (and relatively inexpensive) for people to maintain their relationships and social connections and feel less isolated while living by themselves. In an opinion piece for Inter Press Service, he predicts single-person households will continue to grow exponentially, increasing global demand for housing, transportation, natural resources, and energy.
The existing housing stock and community infrastructure in the U.S. aren’t set up to meet the needs of singles. In a recent Medium article, “Housing for Singles is Sadder than an Evening of Tinder Swiping,” author David Friedlander points out that nationally, less than 1% of total housing stock is studios and 11% are one-bedrooms. Friedlander, whose marketing communications firm Hothouse focuses on the future of housing, makes an urgent call for home builders to take heed of “the ever-growing numbers of marriage-delaying, cash-poor, single millennials and rapidly expanding populations of single seniors—coupled with softening markets for products like luxury condos,” trends that he sees generating “an ever-mounting market demand (and opportunity)” that home builders should ignore at their own peril.
“We’d all be foolish not to realize that there seems to be a market developing,” says Mike Connor, CEO of Vermont-based Connor Mill Built Homes, which began taking single buyers seriously this year after the sales team tipped them off that it was receiving more calls from them. “We’re seeing a very high rise in first-time single millennials who are coming directly from their parents’ house—not even renting. It’s a shift from years past, when the typical pathway was college, apartment, marriage, buy a home as a couple. We hadn’t spotted this as a trend.”
Toll Brothers, the nation’s largest luxury home builder, saw it coming. The company is now developing products for its 50 markets in 22 states that are salable to all aspects of the market segment, from unmarried millennials to widowed baby boomers, through a series of charrettes with architects and planners as well as interactive social media campaigns that allow Toll Brothers divisions to directly ask buyers what they want. “We can really tweak our offerings based on their Instagram likes,” says Chris Gaffney, a group president who oversees the firm’s suburban home building activities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. “They’re not buying your typical Toll Brothers single-family home, that’s for sure.”
The result is developments like Toll Brothers’ Edge-on-Hudson in Westchester County, N.Y., located on a transit hub about a half-hour from New York City and offering loft-style homes with rooftop retreats, multiple options for active outdoor lifestyles, telecommuting hubs, and a strong community focus. “It’s a perfect community for singles,” Gaffney says. “They’re able to get out of Manhattan, but they’re close enough with the train station.”
“A Smaller Jewel Box”
Whether you’re single by choice or by circumstance, being the only single person on a cul-de-sac full of families can be a lonely and unfulfilling experience, devoid of pals to go jogging or share a beer with and awkward at barbecues. That’s why so many singles—particularly younger ones—flock to urban centers like New York City and Washington, D.C., where the share of single-person households in some neighborhoods can approach two-thirds, according to a Pew Research Center study. Traditionally, these single urban dwellers have been renters, but skyrocketing rents are causing many of them to consider homeownership.
“Many singles have been pleased to find that owning a home can be a practical and feasible option,” says Cara Kane, senior director of corporate communications for Los Angeles–based KB Home, which focuses primarily on building neighborhoods for first-time buyers. “Affordable home prices, along with historically low interest rates, have been a contributing factor in the increase in home buyers who are single.”
With half the buying power of a double-income couple, singles often have a harder time qualifying to buy homes. They have lower median household incomes—$36,600 for single men and $26,355 for single women compared with $85,087 for married couples—while the national median home price has reached well over $300,000, according to Realtor.com. The NAR pegged the national median household income for typical buyers in 2017 at $91,600, so it’s no wonder Zillow found it takes the typical single American nearly 11 years to save up for a down payment—about twice the time it takes couples. The average single can afford to spend only $176,100 on a home, putting more than half of the homes in the U.S. out of their reach.
Price will always be a compelling factor for single home buyers, says Dan Swift, president and CEO of BSB Design, which provides architecture services for builders throughout the nation. That’s why singles gravitate to higher-density, smaller homes with flexible, highly functional layouts. Rob Bowman, president of Lancaster,Pa.–based Charter Homes & Neighborhoods, says single buyers find affordability through more efficient floor plans with less square footage and low maintenance because “time is a premium, and they don’t want to spend all their money on a home.”
Euromonitor International’s “Top 10 Global Consumer Trends 2019” report states that affordability and convenience are what it’s all about for today’s singles, a group it calls “loner living” consumers. Singles prioritize financial security because they bear the full cost of housing and utilities, and they’re less willing to pay for products advertised as “durable,” “high quality,” “on trend,” or “natural,” preferring simple, functional products that are easy to dispose of and come in smaller packages. “Products and services that help these consumers celebrate their proudly independent lifestyles will succeed in capturing this growing market segment,” the report states.
Risk-averse and mired in tradition, most builders are hesitant to develop the smaller, more efficient homes that would appeal to singles because it’s never been done before, says Nick Lehnert, executive director of design strategies for KTGY Architecture + Planning, which has designed communities for builders in 44 states. On the advice of his millennial son, who insists he could live happily in a “shoebox” with a roof deck, Lehnert has been riffing on designs for mini- and micro-homes for builders including Toll Brothers and Salt Lake City–based Woodside Homes, and was recently part of a team chosen to create the Apple Home, a small house packed with tons of utility (much like the iPhone). “We have an emerging trend to go small, whether super small or just small in general,” he says. “We’re trying to find ways to configure houses in a single-family detached format that can still live very well but be small.”
“There’s no question that quite a few people across the marketplace are choosing smaller, higher-quality homes,” says Connor, whose own clients are following this trend. “That’s not unrelated to single buyers. If you’re by yourself, you’re not going to do as big of a house.”
Also more likely to entertain, most single home buyers will happily swap square footage for more durable and impressive finishes and appointments, Swift says. “They’re a little bit more discerning, at least in my experience. They want a smaller jewel box.”
This is a trend not lost on home supply companies like Whirlpool Corp., which recently started offering smaller versions of JennAir luxury kitchen appliances such as cooktops that are half the size of conventional ones following demand from contractors on both coasts and in between (see sidebar at right). Sub-Zero and Bosch are also offering appliances for compact spaces, and “it’s not just New York,” Bosch’s brand manager Nitasha Rohatgi told The Wall Street Journal.
Women Outpacing Men
Of the singles who make up well more than a quarter of all home buyers, women are the ones to watch. As Rebecca Traister explains in a New York Magazine article, “Single Women Are Now the Most Potent Political Force in America,” the proportion of married women in the U.S. dropped below 50% for the first time in 2009 as the number of adults younger than 34 who had never married rose to 46%—a 12% increase in less than a decade. “We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration, and the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry,” Traister writes.
Steadily outpacing men for the past several years, single females accounted for 18% of home buyers in 2018; single males made up 9%. A 2018 LendingTree survey found that single women owned around 22% of homes in the U.S., while single men owned less than 13%. Boomer women, divorcing in record numbers and outliving their husbands, are driving the surge; the median age for single female buyers was 54 years old. “Single females tend to really value homeownership, not just as a financial investment but also as a place where they can live,” Jessica Lautz, NAR director of demographics and behavioral insights, told Bankrate.
Forward-looking builders are designing with this sub-demographic in mind. They’re offering products that cost less because single women can afford less, qualifying for only 39% of the nation’s homes while single men could buy 52%, according to Zillow. Limited buyer power means women are more willing than men to buy entry-level or starter homes, NAR found, spending a median of $189,000 compared with men’s $215,000.
Single women, more than most, seek out homes and communities that emphasize safety and security. Often that means higher-density attached homes “because you’re just safer with a larger group of people living nearby,” says Jay Kallos, senior vice president of architecture at Roswell, Ga.–based Ashton Woods. “The problem is, they don’t want to live in a place that looks like a fortress. The most important sense of security they can get is from having a sense of community. We’re building places where people know their neighbors.”
Chicago-based Lexington Homes is developing a number of townhome and single-family home communities throughout the city and its suburbs that appeal to single women, a demographic that has become very important to the company. Lexington Homes is actively reaching out to single women with social media campaigns and constantly tweaking its product to meet singles’ needs. Recently, CEO Jeff Benach was surprised when a single man in his 40s snapped up the first single-family townhome hybrid in a development in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood. “I’d expected to see mostly young families,” he says. “He wanted the backyard for his dogs.”
Flexibility and Personalization are Key
Single clients of all genders must see opportunity to grow within a home, Swift says, making flexible spaces and adaptability to lifestyle changes crucial to them. BSB was founded on the principles of individuality over conformity and purpose over precedent, according to Swift, and the firm creates multipurpose spaces that could as easily be media rooms as bedrooms. “People think, maybe if I do get married or remarried, I could change those spaces into something else,” Swift says, noting that houses need to be able to transform over time.
“I’m not a psychiatrist, nor do I play one on TV, but I think for the younger group, in the back of their minds, they’re thinking they’re not going to be single forever. At least that’s the hope,” Kallos says. Ashton Woods designs flexible spaces so single buyers can “come in and project what they want onto them—it could be a house for a blended family or they’ve got a bunch of friends who visit every quarter.”
At Ashton Woods, agents are trained to show single buyers how plans can be modified and personalized and how even smaller homes feel like part of the fabric of the community. “When a single lady or a single man comes into the sales center, we want our reps to understand that they don’t necessarily want five bedrooms,” Kallos says. “Maybe the whole second floor on this product could become a man cave or an entertainment area; it doesn’t have to be bedrooms. Flexibility and personalization are key.”
As with any buyer, single buyers want to find products that meet their needs, Kallos adds. “When you slice and dice the term ‘single buyer,’ it can be a lot of different people, and they want to feel special,” he says. “They don’t want to feel like you don’t have anything for them.”