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Singles in the housing market; Successful buying depends on doing your homework

Susan, a professional woman in Chicago, was quite uncharacteristically swept off her feet by a fantasy. She thought she wanted a little lilac-smothered bungalow in the suburbs.

Finding the house was the easy part. But after she moved in, she learned a lot about home-owning, and about herself. She discovered she didn't have time to track down repairmen and garden helpers. Her work, her friends, and her social life were all centered in the city. She felt isolated and frustrated. She unloaded her dream house, lilacs and all, and hurried back to happiness amid the tall towers.

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Last year singles like Susan bought 1 of every 11 homes sold in the United States, according to Builder magazine. The forecast is that they will buy a lot more as the '80s progress, becoming the fastest-growing segment of the housing market. There are 58 million single adults -- 4 out of every 10 women, 3 of every 10 men. Young professionals, single parents, the widowed, the divorced, the retired -- they share with each other, and with couples, all the usual motives for wanting to buy a home, ranging from emotional needs, like Susan's, to tax benefits.

Not all, or even most, singles go through the revolving door like Susan. But Kristelle L. Petersen, when she was an editor at Better Homes and Gardens, noticed in her travels that single, unknowledgeable home buyers were encountering many distressing experiences. At best they felt like pawns, caught up in the complex game of real estate. At worst they were cheated and victimized by unscrupulous agents, sellers, lenders, and providers of settlement services.

Miss Petersen's first response was to found a national consumer magazine called How to Buy a Home. And now she has compiled what she has learned in "The Single Person's Home-Buying Handbook" (Hawthorn-Dutton, $7.95).

She says, after months of travel as she researched her book and talked to thousands of single homeowners, that the biggest and most common pitfall is the failure to do the necessary homework. Only by being throughly informed about the market and the complex process of property acquisition, and by knowing what their rights are can singles escape intimidation and discrimination, she says.

Miss Petersen, who is in the midst of moving to Dallas to take a new job, is taking some of her own advice. She intends to rent for a while, while she goes thorough real estate legrowk, and then hopes to buy an older house in a turnaround neighborhood and "rehab" it herself. She contends that many of the best housing bargains are still in such older neighborhoods, where the houses are large and well built and can sometimes be subdivided.

There will always be challenges, as any single homeowner can verify. Margaret, newly retired from a busy professional career, is delighted with her little house on San Francisco Bay, but says she did not realize how time- and energy-consuming a small garden could be. She greatly values the retired cabinetmaker in the area who made all her built-ins and can be called on at any time for maintenance repairs. People like him, she says, who are expert and always on tap, take the sting out of running a house alone. She lists as "real homeowner resources" those good neighbors with whom you reciprocate favors and assistance, the telephone book Yellow Pages, and the classified ads in local shopper newspapers.

Mildred and Nancy, two single women who bought a house together in the Southwest, have bought some do-it-yourself books on basic plumbing, basic electrical wiring, and how to lay tile floors. Like most other homeowners, they've done a lot of their own painting, but they have also worked hard to find the best and most efficient workmen to carry out their more ambitious renovation projects.

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As for the satisfactions involved with successful home ownership, Miss Petersen says she has seen people come into a fuller sense of their identity when they have found their right home setting. The right home, she has observed , enhances and enriches its owner. It can prove an extension and reflection of his or her personality, besides offering privacy and the chance to structure one's own environment. And there is always the encouraging fact that homes, generally, have been appreciating at an annual rate of 12 to 15 percent.

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