Suburbia: It has been a panacea and an expletive. Touted for affordability and maligned for automobile dependence, suburbia is a fact of life in the U.S.
Tapping an Overlooked Homebuying Market: Single Women
One-fifth of home buyers are single women, yet this market has been largely ignored by builders. Here’s how to get noticed.
Single women are a demographic that's just too big for home builders to ignore. A 2007 survey by the National Association of Realtors found that single women comprise 20 percent of home buyers. Comparatively, only 9 percent of home buyers are single men.
Unmarried female home buyers are a diverse group that includes young singles, single mothers, middle-aged divorcees, widows and seniors. Among them are women who seek to establish a household with one or more friends.
But builders have some catching up to do. Although some builders do an effective job of catering to this market, it's largely overlooked, says Melinda Brody, an Orlando-based sales training expert. "I think that when single women visit a community, they feel like outcasts because the world
is still couple-oriented," says Brody. "Home builders need to embrace them and not make them feel isolated just because they don't have a partner."
Jacobs Homes in Deerfield, Ill., attracts a significant number of single female buyers. "We've found that single men only think about buying a home once they get married, but single women are natural nesters who know real estate is a great investment," says Juli Jacobs, director of marketing. "They have the college degrees, the jobs and the money."
A 2006 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University revealed that nearly 40 percent of unmarried female home buyers are middle-aged (45 to 64 years old) and therefore more established in their careers and earnings than younger buyers.
Bob Hafer, a sales trainer based in Dallas, thinks the priorities of single women are significantly different from those of single men.
"Single guys are interested in the toys, the extras, whereas single women are more practical," says Hafer. "They want a safe environment that's close to shopping, work and family, if they have family members in the area. And they want features that make living in the home easier for them."
Whereas single men tend to take it on faith that their new home will be a good investment, single women are more cognizant of resale value. "They want something that is more manageable — perhaps smaller, but it has to be a good value."
Each sub-group of single females is likely to be looking for something a little different, and the qualities are diverse.
Single mothers, for instance, check out the neighborhood to see if there are other families with whom they might be able to connect, says Maxine McBride, president of Clockwork Marketing Services, a marketing and public-relations firm in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
"Single moms don't have a built-in babysitter at home," says McBride. "And they're looking for access to schools and activities for their kids. That's even more important because they're stretched so thin. So your sales approach has to be very much about, 'This is how your life can be easier if you live here.'"
Security is another feature that should be played up. "You want to talk about the fact that it's a gated community and how the gate works, and whether the perimeter is secured, and that there are street lights throughout — things that make people feel safe," McBride says. Other big pluses are low maintenance exteriors that don't require painting and lawns that are mowed by a maintenance crew, features that allow single women to budget much-needed R&R.
Even more important, McBride says, are opportunities to socialize within the community. One very popular amenity nowadays is the dog park, a great place for pet owners to get acquainted.
McBride suggests that builders offer the use of their community centers to charitable organizations for fundraisers and other events. "That makes a real strong connection with the female buyer — that you are willing to host something for charity in your community. It gives them good feelings about who you are."
Jacobs says single women will buy in the suburbs as long as the community is accessible to work, shopping and transportation corridors into the city. "Let's face it: a single woman doesn't want to hang out at a suburban grocery store," she says.
One of the reasons that single women buy new homes at twice the rate of single men is because "they want that warranty," says Anne Olson, principal of Olson Architecture in Niwot, Colo. "They don't want things to be falling apart, and they want to know what they're getting. And a new home is always going to be more energy-efficient than an older one."
"Me" space — a place to escape the stresses of daily life — is vitally important to these buyers, Olson says. It may mean a spa-like bath with a soaking or aromatherapy tub or a retreat in the master bedroom where they can kick back and read or listen to music.
Susan Gunyou, director of sales and marketing for Reardon Brothers Custom Homes in Bluffton, S.C., finds that women tend to be less interested in communities that are designed around a single amenity, such as golf. A variety of amenities (swimming pool, tennis courts, bike paths and so on) appeals more strongly.
But don't assume that what sells at one community will sell at another. Use focus groups to provide insight into what potential buyers are thinking.
"Compared to the cost of fixing a project once you've started it, the expense of a focus group is nominal," McBride says. "Many times a builder will say, 'I'll just get a bunch of people together and ask what's important to them.' But if you're doing it yourself with your own product, there's no way you can remain objective."
Outside professionals know how to recruit people who fit the profile of your intended buyer and solicit valuable feedback without taking any of the comments personally, she says.
This may be the 21st century, but some new-home salespeople still cling to outdated approaches that alienate single women, says Brody. The most important role a salesperson can play is trusted adviser and confidante. "It would behoove a salesperson to be a good listener and pour on the empathy," she says. "For some women, it's their first time buying a home and they're kind of nervous."
Not all salespeople are good at follow-up. "They're already moving on to the next sale when they should be communicating via phone and e-mail with updates on the community and alerts about parties and other events — anything that personalizes the experience," she says.
Another way to cement relationships with customers is by introducing them to other buyers who
|Bathrooms with soaking tubs and other spa-like amenities provide a welcome respite at the end of a long, hard day — something single mothers especially appreciate. Photo: Philip Wegener|
have similar interests. "Single women need a support network," Brody says. "They may have relocated to the area for work and don't know other women. They'd like to hook up with other single women who have kids or dogs or are into yoga or photography or running."
Never insult a single woman by asking if her husband or significant other will be along later. "Salespeople cannot assume that because a woman is single, she's going to have a difficult time making the purchase," says McBride. "That's the worst thing they can do." Brody says a politically correct way to ask the question is, "Who, in addition to yourself, will be making this decision?"
Obviously, salespeople should avoid getting too personal with their questions. But they might ask, "How many people are going to be living in the house?" in order to figure out how many bedrooms a buyer needs. "Usually buyers open up and tell you they're single or recently divorced," Jacobs says.
Hafer believes there's one selling principle that applies regardless of age, income and other differentiating factors: discovery.
"There will be differences, but a salesperson cannot assume he or she knows what those differences are. The key is listening, understanding and then influencing according to the interest of the individual."
Jacobs Homes has two active communities in the Chicago suburbs that are drawing a significant number of single women (15 percent at one community and 29 percent at the other). Most are between 30 and 40 years old and buying attached single-family homes in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. Jacobs uses a combination of print advertising, direct mail and e-mail blasts to reach out to them.
Clockwork Marketing has planned a number of events to market new communities to single women, including Meet Your Neighbor Night, Movie Night and the "Shop Hop," a day trip to a shopping mall. "The Shop Hop is a great way to get a whole bunch of women on a bus," says McBride. "You have all this time to talk to them about your community in a subtle way. A couple of mimosas don't hurt in getting the information down, too." Be sure to follow up after the event: "Offer a great prize as an incentive to get prospective buyers to register."
Brody encourages home builders to not just think outside the box, but to smash that box with a hammer.
"In my opinion, builders are too conservative when it comes to marketing," she says. "If I wanted to attract single women to a new community, I'd focus on the predominant age group and what they might like."
Her suggestions include:
- Hosting a day of holistic Zen activities, co-sponsored by a local spa and complete with lit candles, New Age music, herbal tea and chair massages. At the end of the day, distribute spa coupons.
- Organizing a "Sex and the City" movie party where Cosmos are served at the community center or sales office.
- Inviting single mothers to tour a community on a weeknight. Keep the sales office and models open until 9 or 10 p.m. and provide a sit-down dinner or buffet and entertainment for the children.
"Working single moms pick up their kids from day care around 7 p.m.," she says. "They're bringing home boxed dinners so they don't have to eat out for the 19th time. On weekends, they don't have time to shop for a new home. If your sales office is open when they're actually available, you're more likely to capture their interest."