Urban Wire Unmasking the Real Gender Homeownership Gap
Jung Hyun Choi
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An image of a woman stretching with a cat on her lap.

We’ve come a long way since 1839, when Mississippi became the first state to allow married (namely white) women to own property in their name. Before that, the law held that “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.” 

The 1862 Homestead Act allowed widows and single women to own land, and in 1866, the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment ensured that right for Black Americans. But it wasn’t until 1974 that women were assured the right to take out a mortgage without a male cosigner.

Fast-forward to 2021: decennial census and American Community Survey data show the homeownership rate of households headed by women reached 63 percent, just 5 percentage points below the men’s rate. This gap has narrowed significantly since 1990, when the homeownership gap between households headed by men and households headed by women was 20 percentage points.

This decline can be partially explained by the fact that women are now more likely to participate in the labor market and more likely to have bachelor's degrees. But a further look behind the data reveals a deeper story:

  • Today, 43 percent of married households identify as female-headed households. Married households are more likely to be homeowners (80 percent of female-headed married households and 81 percent of male-headed married households are homeowners), so this shift clouds the real change in the gender homeownership gap.
  • Among single households, especially those with children, female-headed households still struggle to achieve homeownership. Among never-married households, a 6 percentage-point female-male homeownership gap held steady between 1990 and 2021. Despite making up a higher share of college graduates, single female household heads still have substantially lower incomes and are more likely to raise children than single male household heads.

Women’s visible progress in the housing market can especially mask more vulnerable populations’ experiences. A substantially higher share of never-married female household heads have children, and only 25 percent of them are homeowners. This highlights the need for tailored efforts to reach potential female homebuyers, understand their needs, and provide information and assistance.

The rise in female-headed married households

In 1990, 33 percent of households were headed by women; now, it’s more than half. This change is mainly driven by the share of female-headed married households, which rose to 43 percent in 2021, up from only 8 percent in 1990.

But for never-married household heads, the female share has stayed almost the same—about half—and for households headed by those who are divorced, separated, or widowed, the share of female household heads has declined from 73 percent to 66 percent.

Head-of-household changes explain almost two-thirds of the gender homeownership gap decline

Married households have the highest homeownership rate. If the share of female household heads of any marital status remained steady from 1990 to 2021 and only the homeownership rate for each group changed, the male homeownership rate would be 74 percent and the female homeownership rate would be 60 percent.

This hypothetical gender homeownership gap would be 14.2 percentage points, almost three times higher than the current gap of 4.7 percentage points. About 63 percent (9.5 percentage points, the difference between the hypothetical and current gaps) of the 15 percentage-point decline in the homeownership gap can be explained by the change in the marital composition of male- and female-headed households.

In fact, for never-married household heads, the gender homeownership gap has stayed largely the same. Both never-married male- and female-headed households experienced an 8 percentage-point increase in homeownership rate between 1990 and 2021, and the homeownership gap between the two groups remained 6 percentage points.

Despite higher educational attainment, single female heads are less likely to be homeowners

The share of never-married female household heads with bachelor's degrees is greater than the share of never-married male household heads with bachelor's degrees. Despite this educational achievement, we’ve yet to close the male-female income gap. The inflation-adjusted income gap increased from about $4,500 in 1990 to $8,700 in 2021.

Additionally, a substantially higher share of single moms than single dads means many single women could face greater difficulty saving for a down payment because of the greater expenses of supporting their families.

Although more research is needed, lower earnings and the costs of caring for children are likely the main reason for the ongoing gender homeownership gap among never-married households. 

Educational Attainment, Median Income, and Presence of Children in Households with Never-Married Household Heads



Female-headed households

Male-headed households

Share with bachelor’s degrees







Median income (in 2021 dollars)







Share with children younger than 18







Source:Author’s calculations of decennial census and American Community Survey data.
Notes:"Head of household" is based on self-reported census data.

Closing the gender homeownership gap requires more work

The rise in the share of female household heads and the decline in the gender homeownership gap signal progress, but a closer look at the data suggests more work is needed to further close gender gaps in the housing market.

Though women outpace men in educational attainment, the pay gap remains, indicating more work is needed in the labor market, such as increased access to affordable child care and expanded paid family and medical leave.

Gender differences in financial knowledge and confidence could also play a role; a lower share of millennial and Generation Z women report feeling less confident about their financial knowledge than men (58 percent versus 69 percent). These women also reported less access to financial advice and support compared with men (47 percent versus 65 percent).

According to the National Association of Realtors, the share of single women homebuyers has continued to rise and currently accounts for 17 percent of all homebuyers compared with 9 percent of single men. And our previous study finds women are more likely to make on-time mortgage payments, making them attractive future homebuyers to the lending community.

To help all women increase their access to the security and wealth-building properties of homeownership, lenders and housing counselors could reach out to potential female homebuyers and provide tailored assistance that meets their specific circumstances and demand. And researchers can do their part to ensure all women’s homebuying needs, barriers, and experiences are reflected in their work.

Research Areas Housing finance
Tags Credit availability Family and household data Finance Financial knowledge and capability Housing markets Women and girls
Policy Centers Housing Finance Policy Center
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