Why single women are the fastest growing segment of the real estate market

We suspected as much, but now we have the proof: Single women are the fastest growing segment of the real estate market. In fact, they are buying homes at more than twice the rate of single men, snatching up one out of every five properties sold in the U.S. So we at TOH decided to conduct an informal poll of both future and current homeowners to identify their biggest concerns about going it alone.

Close proximity to the workplace and cultural activities are important, but perhaps the major issue for a single woman in the market for a new house has to do with personal safety, as well as the security of her property. Worries about keeping up with home repairs, and fear of being taken advantage of by a crooked contractor or another trade professional, also rank high on her list.

The following advice should help alleviate the stress of setting up house on your own.

The tools you'll need: Even with a newer home, drains still get clogged, shelves and drapes still need to be hung, and nail holes must be patched. For such basic improvement and upkeep projects that don't require the help of a professional, you'll need confidence and a good set of tools.

*Assemble a tool kit. A basic set should include: finish hammer, set of screwdrivers (or single multi-head model), pipe wrench, utility knife, needle nose pliers, wire cutters, measuring tape, level, putty knife, and small saw.

*Build your skills. In addition to the women-only tool and DIY tutorials offered at home centers, many community college and vocational schools offer co-ed courses in basic carpentry, plumbing, and electrical. Check Construction Book Express for a state-by-state listing of schools. Construction workshops, such as Women Build Houses specialize in eco-friendly "green" building practices, and at Habitat for Humanity's Women Build projects, you can learn how to properly swing a framing hammer while helping shelter someone in need.

How to avoid unfair treatment: For those times when you do need a pro, keep in mind that a good contractor, plumber, painter, or landscape professional is someone who has the skills and experience to deliver a quality job at a fair price.

*Find reputable trades people by asking friends and family for referrals. See How to Hire a Contractor for more details.

*Contact professionals directly and ask for the names and phone numbers of some of his or her other clients-and actually call them.

*Get multiple bids on any job; typically the ones in the middle price range are the most realistic.

*Get everything in writing. A contract should always include the start and end dates, a payment schedule (never pay in full for work that isn't completed to your satisfaction), materials and labor costs, a detailed project description, proof of insurance, and a clause stating the work will conform to local building codes. For more on contracts, see Get it in Writing

How to protect yourself: You'd be surprised how much you can learn about a neighborhood just by observing how well kept houses and yards are, and simply by roaming around and talking with people who live or work there.

*Drive or walk around your prospective neighborhood at various times. If you usually get up early and stroll to the local market for a newspaper and morning coffee, make sure there's activity on the streets at that hour. And if you jog or walk the dog after work, see if other like-minded folks are out and about doing the same.

*Take a ride. If you rely on public transportation, enlist a friend to take the train or bus to the new neighborhood to make sure you both feel secure on the route. When you actually get to your destination, check to see how many people disembark with you. A safe stop is typically one where lots of people are coming and going.

*Visit the local police precinct and check crime statistics for the area.

*Consider a security system for the property itself. Many new models will not only alert you to intruders, but will tell you if the hose to your washing machine has burst, or detect when there's smoke or CO2 in the air. If you have access to a broadband Internet connection, you can even hook up a surveillance camera that'll act as a virtual watch dog while you're at work or on vacation.__Amy Hughes