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Singles flock into the housing market

If you're a SWF, DBM, or otherwise unattached, there's good news on the home front. Make that house front.

It's OK to buy.

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Low interest rates, a healthy job market, and strong consumer confidence mean single folks don't have to wait until they're married to buy, say real estate agents, bankers, and new homeowners.

A record number of singles are believers.

For the first time in recorded history in the United States, single-person households outnumbered married couples with children in 1997, a trend likely to grow, according to Census data.

But even though people are delaying marriage - or forsaking it altogether - they still long for a place where they can plant cucumbers and paint the walls without losing their security deposit.

And that brings up another issue - rent. A lot of singles realize their rent could pay most of their mortgage. "I have friends, and their mortgage payment was less than the rent I was paying," says Brant Aycock, a Charlotte, N.C., dentist who bought a two-bedroom condo last year.

Renters in major cities can easily pay more than $700 for a one-bedroom apartment. For less than that - about $672 - they could borrow $100,000 and get thousands back on taxes, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH Associates, a financial publisher in Butler, N.J., that surveys 2,500 mortgage lenders each week.

Dr. Aycock had pondered buying for a while, but the final straw came last year when he filled out his 1040. "On top of all the taxes I paid, I had to cut a check for $800 more," he says. This year he received $3,000 in federal and state refunds.

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A long-standing argument against singles buying homes was that if they lost their jobs, they'd have no second income to pay the mortgage and would lose their property. But insecurity is less of an issue with unemployment low and the economy chugging away.

Besides, renting only affords a false safety net, Mr. Gumbinger says. "If you lose your job and you're renting, you could be thrown out on the street just the same," he says.

Bankers say they should not be a hurdle, either. Legally, they cannot consider a person's marital status when deciding whether to grant a mortgage. The only downside for a single borrower may be the lack of a second income with which to buy a larger home - not misgivings from the loan officer, says Bank One spokesman Tom Kelly.

The finance issue appealed to Gregg Rzepczynski, a Chicago lawyer who got hooked on home ownership because of low interest rates, the tax benefits, and they city's booming real estate market.

He bought a downtown condo four years ago and a nearby town house last summer. Mr. Rzepczynski now lives in the town house and sold the the condo last month - at a profit. "I used those funds to buy a pre-construction condo in another hot downtown market," he says.

With no children or mate, singles tend to opt for condos, cooperatives, and town houses rather than single-family detached homes.

"I didn't want to buy a house because it would've been too much of a headache. I lived with a friend who owned a house, and I saw how much she had to deal with - she had to cut her lawn every week and do other things," says Karin Kelk, a graphic designer, who recently bought a town house in Eden Prairie, Minn.

A record 66 percent of US households own their own homes, according to Census figures.

While married couples still buy most of the homes, singles are making inroads. Studies show the number of unmarried buyers rising 20 and 30 percent from the mid-1990s through last year, while married folks saw drops or just nominal increases, according to surveys by the National Association of Realtors and Chicago Title and Trust, which monitors real estate trends.

With the country's single population expected to keep growing, singles likely will keep buying. Says Aycock, who spent 10 weeks looking for a condo in Charlotte, "It's a lot easier to find a condo than to find a spouse."

Gregg Rzepczynski - Chicago lawyer

*Has purchased three properties over the past four years.

*Four years ago, paid $115,000 for a two-bedroom condo, which he sold for a profit this year.

*Lives in a two-bedroom town house (shown left), which he bought for $210,000 last year. Monthly costs: $1,600, which includes mortgage and taxes as well as a $260 monthly assessment.

*Last month, he bought a $295,000 pre-construction condo that he plans to sell once it's built.

*Previous rent: $1,200.

*Salary: No comment.

*Why he bought: The tax deduction as well as the emotional benefits of owning one's own place.

*The downside: Having to fix things yourself.

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