These Women Bought Their First Homes in Their 20s; Here's How

Design Elements: Getty | Phillip Spears; yuruphoto; alexsl
Photo Illustration: Aly Lim
Design Elements: Getty | Phillip Spears; yuruphoto; alexsl
Photo Illustration: Aly Lim

Rachel P. had always had buying a home in her sights. Going to college and then working as a law clerk and office manager at a family law firm in New York City, her dream was a Manhattan brownstone.

"I knew that a brownstone is probably $10 mil. I have a background in economics and an MBA, so I understand that in the New York City market, the down payment, you're looking at 20 percent. If you go co-op, you have maintenance fees and all that fun stuff. So the concept of buying, I saw it as a challenge, something that I would probably do once I'm married when I have a financial partner with skin in the game and something that I wouldn't be able to necessarily obtain or want in my 20s," the now 26-year old said.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, when New York adopted stay-at-home orders, Rachel (who is being identified by her first name because of the nature of the divorce cases she works on), was living with her then-boyfriend of two years. They shared a one-bedroom, 300-square foot apartment, where they split the monthly rent of $1,600.

"I had this idea come to me, why don't we rent a house? We just need some space where we can have a backyard and work, some land, some air to breathe," she said. "I went on Zillow and realized how damn cheap the upstate New York housing market is. I could buy a house for $200,000. So then I switched gears from renting to the idea of buying."

Her then-partner rejected the idea and tried to talk her out of it, saying that she had too much student loan and credit card debt and that they should wait until they got married. She eventually found out that he had spent thousands of dollars playing video games and couldn't go in with her for a house. They broke up, and she moved in with a cousin in the Adirondacks where she didn't have to pay rent and was able to add to the savings she'd been accruing since the pandemic for a down payment. She bought her home in 2021, when she was 24.

"I wanted to check the box: homeowner. I wanted to be a real adult."

In a 1999 episode of "Sex and The City," Miranda, a Harvard-educated lawyer, faces incredulity and judgment for daring to buy an apartment on her own. Yet single women have outpaced single men in buying homes for as long as the National Association of Realtors (NAR) began collecting data in 1981. That year, 73 percent of homebuyers were married couples, 11 percent were single women, and 10 percent were single men. Now, almost twice as many single women own homes than single men. In 2022, 61 percent of homeowners were married couples, 17 percent single women, and 9 percent single men.

These figures are all the more striking considering that women could not legally get a mortgage without a cosigner until 1974, with the passage of the Fair Housing Act. Still, for many women, the notion of needing a partner or other financial or life benchmarks to buy a home can persist.

As Rachel puts it: "I was nervous about filling out a mortgage loan application based on the preconceived notions that I had about being qualified." Despite carrying a significant amount of debt and having no help from her family, which she describes as lower middle class, she says the online process took 12 minutes and she was preapproved for the loan in 60 seconds. "I was baffled when I got the approval back so quickly. I just thought, 'Wow, if I had listened to what that guy told me — that I wasn't qualified — and didn't apply, I would not be here today.'"

That timeline isn't unusual, said Brooks Dove, a real estate broker in Suwanee, GA.

"The average time from application to preapproval is about 24 hours. This all depends on how fast you get them the required documentation. The average time from application to full loan approval is about 20 days," Dove says. "But that would include full underwriting, appraisal, and any conditions being met. This is based on working with our preferred lenders. Choosing the right lender is critical, and your best bet is to go with your agent's lender recommendation."

Rachel got that loan approval in September 2020, but didn't find her house until March 2021. The actual underwriting took two months. She closed on her home on May 6, 2021, and since then, she has met her current fiancé. She has moved in with him and is renting out her house.

That doesn't mean that buying a home is without financial risk — interest rates are rising, and while people like Rachel were able to save during the pandemic, others experienced financial instability or the loss of a job. Timing the real estate market can also be tricky.

Jessica Windham bought her first home in 2008 in Denver.

"I was 24. I really was trying to check all of the boxes, not necessarily the married boxes, but all of the other boxes," says Windham, a logistics expert who just turned 39. "I came from a very poor family. I was the only one that went from high school to college to a real job. I graduated college in three years instead of four. I was rushing through life. I wanted to check the box: homeowner. I wanted to be a real adult."

At the time, Windham was working for UPS, earning about $70,000 a year. Raised by a single mom who stressed independence, she navigated her financial path herself, taking advantage of a first-time homebuyer credit and clearing out her 401K for the down payment.

"In fairness, it probably wasn't the best financial choice for me to make. I basically cleared it out because I didn't have a lot of money," she says, referring to the $7,000 she needed for the 3.5 percent down payment.

"I came from the theory of good debt versus bad debt, and a mortgage was good debt," she adds. "And I did have a stable job."

The mortgage payments for her condo were about $1,000 a month. Homeowners' association fees were another $200. In total, they were double what she had been paying in rent, but she saw the home as a good investment because of its location near upcoming public transportation.

She bought the home in October 2008, right as the real estate market crashed. Meanwhile, she met the man who would become her husband, who was based in Miami, where she moved in May 2011. Luckily for Windham, demand in Denver was strong enough that she could rent out her place and break even, despite her unfortunate timing.

Nowadays, in her social circles, which feature a lot of software engineers, many of her friends in their 20s and 30s are buying homes as part of an investment strategy.

Julia Rauch just recently closed on a three-bedroom, three-bath house on a half acre of land in the metro Atlanta area despite being just 21. She advises other young women: "Believe in yourself without hesitation."

Rauch is married and bought the house with her husband. "We could have done it without each other, but it was certainly helpful to have dual income," she says.

As a paralegal, a job she started when she was 19, she makes $45,000 annually. Her husband makes $100,000 as a body technician. Though neither has a college degree, "we are both highly motivated," she says. They both started working full time in high school, and have actively saved money since then.

"You and your goals are one and the same."

After getting married last year, the couple moved into an apartment in Kennesaw, GA. "During that time, we saved even more, buying our cars with cash and living below our means. We cook dinner every night rather than eating out," she explains. "We try to shop on sale and do not waste money on useless things, because we had a common goal that was much more important than tons of new items. We have great credit which we have been working on since high school."

Without help from their families, the couple paid a down payment of $15,000 and borrowed at a 7.6 percent interest rate. Their house was listed at $340,000 in Paulding County, which is cheaper than nearby Cobb County. They offered $355,000, having fallen in love with the hardwood floors, wraparound porch, basement, sunroom, back deck and chandeliers.

"Start living a bit more frugally, spend money on what truly provides benefit to you and your goals," Rauch advises. "You and your goals are one and the same; you must consider your future self with all decisions, especially financial ones."