A Home of Her Own More and more single women are buying their own homes--and they'd rather get advice from Bob Vila than from Dr. Phil
By Jean Chatzky Additional Reporting By Carolyn Bigda

(MONEY Magazine) – You've probably heard that thanks to divorce and the fact that women outlive men, 90% of women will be solely responsible for their finances at some point in their lives. Now a new study on women and home ownership conducted by Mathew Greenwald & Associates for Sears Roebuck notes that almost as many--85%--will be solely responsible for their homes.

Owning a home has become a keystone of a long-term financial strategy, particularly for women, says Kermit Baker, senior research fellow with Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. Today women aren't waiting until they marry to buy a house. According to the National Association of Realtors, one out of every five home buyers is a single woman; women account for one-third of all condominium purchases (as well as 6% of second homes).

It's clear from the Sears study that owning a home provides women with a huge emotional boost (57% say they take more pride in their homes than in their careers) as well as a hobby (61% say they "enjoy" taking care of home maintenance and repair). That may explain why, given the choice of home repair expert Bob Vila or relationship guru Dr. Phil for an hour's worth of free advice, more than twice as many women chose Vila.

But Georgeann Georges of Sears says that women aren't doing all they can to protect their major asset. Two areas are of particular concern.

The equity drain

Of women homeowners who have taken out home-equity loans or lines of credit in the past five years, 35% used none or only a portion of that money for home improvements. The same percentage used the proceeds to pay off credit-card debt--and one-third of them had built up new credit-card debt within four years. As home prices start to level off and interest rates begin to creep up, this is especially worrisome. "Borrowing from our homes has been so easy the past few years," Baker says. "As rates rise, these loans will become a much more serious burden."

WHAT TO DO If you can't control your credit-card urges (you know who you are), stop putting your house on the line. And consider a fixed-rate refi for any adjustable-rate loan you have now, before your payments start to climb.

The maintenance challenge

Roughly 40% of all women who are living with a man say their spouse or partner is solely responsible for home maintenance. As if that weren't enough of a problem, women are not comfortable hiring help. Women say it's harder to find a home repair professional they can trust than it is to find a realtor, an insurance agent, a doctor, even a financial adviser. More than 90% are very or somewhat concerned that they're not getting a fair price for a home repair, and 63% believe they're likely to be charged more than a man would be.

WHAT TO DO To me it seems easier to learn to hire a professional than to learn to do the work yourself. Lou Manfredini, author of House Smarts, suggests getting friends to recommend pros they've worked with successfully. Ask: Did they do good work, at a fair price? Did they communicate with you throughout the process? Membership in national associations and sponsorship of local kids' sports teams are both promising signs. And try to get at least a nod of the head from the building inspector of your town or village. "It's not their job to assess the quality of the work," notes Manfredini, "but they all know who does a good job."

Personally, I find the whole phenomenon interesting on another level. When you ask even the most successful woman about her greatest financial fear, living in a cardboard box still comes out near the top of the list. I used to think of that response as a metaphor. Now I think we may mean it literally.


Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's Today. Contact her by e-mail at MONEYTALK@MONEYMAIL.COM.