What Women Want


Realtors tell all.

As a movie, What Women Want was a $70 million romantic comedy that pulled in almost $183 million domestically and $374 million worldwide – stats that earned it blockbuster status and suggested that women really want understanding and consideration from the opposite sex. As a general Google search, it racks up 1.73 billion hits that reveal we want a litany of simple things, from respect and romance to communication and free time. And as a real estate concept, the results are equally lightweight. The top stories out of 366 million hits detail women’s lust for big closets, jetted bathtubs and security.

Really? According to local brokers, that’s just the icing on the cake, and frothy at that. “Women are often putting their careers first, at least in their 20s and early 30s. So by the time they’re ready to buy a home they have very specific ideas about what they want – and the economic resources to get it because they’ve had more years to make the money and build their credit ratings,” says Coldwell Banker broker Jennifer Ames.

How specific? Ms. Ames, a top-seller in the Chicago residential market, cites some very explicit features, from spaces that are flooded with natural light to layouts that foster connectedness if they have children. Other top-sellers in the city – @properties’ Emily Sachs Wong along with Jennifer Mills and Joanne Nemerovski, both of the newly formed Berkshire Hathaway Koenig Rubloff – have equally precise laundry lists, all shaped by extensive marketplace experience.

Ironically, while quantitative studies abound, none at present detail exactly what women want in their homes. What we do know on the subject from recent research by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) is that almost 20 percent of single women are homeowners, making them the second largest home buying demographic after married couples. That’s twice the rate of single men. Also, of all homes women bought last year, 65 percent of them were single families as opposed to townhouses (12 percent), condos (16 percent) or ‘other’ (8 percent), notes NAR.

But if we couple these numbers with what we do know about women’s spending power, it’s clear that women may be the major force behind home purchases. Last year, Nielsen noted that their total purchasing power ranges from $5 to $15 trillion annually, and they control the bulk of purchasing decisions, ranging from everyday purchases to big-ticket items such as homes. Fleishman-Hillard estimates that women will control two-thirds of the U.S. consumer wealth over the next decade. And the Harvard Business Review notes that women’s earned income is rising, growing at 8.1 percent versus 5.8 percent for men, which will raise women’s purchasing power – already commonly acknowledged as 86 percent of all consumer purchases – still higher.

Couple those numbers with what we know about the housing market in general – especially in Chicago, where the demand for good residential properties shows no sign of abating – and what women want clearly counts. And what women want also makes perfect sense for the economic health of their bank accounts and families, no matter how large or small, given today’s realities. That’s because “their wants are predicated on need, and how they really live today,” notes Ms. Ames.

But home-hunters should keep this caveat in mind: getting what you want in a home is easier said than done right now since this is a very tight market. According to national real estate brokerage Redfin, the Chicago area had only 29,964 homes for sale in February, down 22 percent from a year earlier.

Further complicating matters, good homes go lightning fast. Online brokerage Redfin’s January Fastest Markets Report places Chicago’s time-to-contract at #14 nationally, with new listings logging 41 days on the market as opposed to 48 days the same month last year. Also, the latest S&P/Case-Shiller numbers (at press time and posted in February) showed single-family home prices in the Chicago metropolitan area jumped over 11 percent last year, posting its best year-over-year rise since December 1988. Finally, ‘bidding wars’ are the MO of the moment for buyers trying to snag prime properties in the City according to national real estate brokerage Redfin’s recent findings that Chicago is the only market to see a year-over-year increase in this tactic.

“Serious homebuyers have to act fast and have an assertive broker who really knows their stuff,” points out Ms. Nemerovski. “That means you want to work with someone who has a good network, since many homes go long before they hit the market as brokers network with each other.”

Right now, Chicago is a city of micro-markets. “There used to be whole areas where women with families didn’t want to go, but now they’re not afraid to go outside of established neighborhoods and are spreading out all over the city,” notes Ms. Nemerovski. “Single women too, unless they’re retired and want the ultimate convenience of a downtown location and total maintenance so they can travel,” notes Ms. Sachs Wong. Yet regardless of where they buy, “almost all women want everything done and aren’t up for major work. Cosmetics…that’s okay. But they want what they want and they’re willing to pay for it,” adds Ms. Mills. “It’s all about time, space and quality,” concludes Ms. Sachs Wong.

But that doesn’t mean women are giving an inch on what they really want. “They have very specific non-negotiables,” notes Ms. Ames. It may be that outdoor kitchen or walk-in closet, but these are the extras. Here’s a new Top 10 list per our brokers:

  • Open, light-flooded spaces with big windows.
  • Smart open floor plans that facilitate family (or guest) interaction.
  • Great (but not necessarily huge) kitchens with luxury appliances and large islands.
  • Great entertaining spaces that are open to the kitchen rather than formal dining rooms.
  • Outdoor space, preferably with grass instead of just decks and terraces.
  • Top-quality, durable and beautiful finishes throughout.
  • Smaller spaces, but with completely customized aspects.
  • Locations that offer short commutes to work, great neighborhood infrastructure and premier public schools.
  • For families, three bedrooms on one floor and a lower level playroom.
  • Sustainability throughout for cost control and future resale.

While this headline tempts the obvious, bedrooms are not at the top of men’s real estate want list. “Not even close,” laughs Baird & Warner broker Tom Gorman, whose client roster boasts more than a fair share of bachelors and couples where the man calls the shots. So what is?  Again, not the obvious.

“Man caves have gotten so much attention in the media, but I get far more requests for dedicated space for home offices and gyms,” notes Mr. Gorman. “That means something that’s not in the basement, has lots of natural light and is really well done.”

Sure, men may have a bit more interest in the tech aspects or parking spaces of a place, but for the most part, “men’s wants aren’t that far off from women’s. Real estate is a major investment, so no one is foolish about it today. Women want smart features, and so do men,” he maintains.


About Lisa Skolnik

Lisa Skolnik is a Chicago-based freelancer. She is contributing editor to Today’s Chicago Woman, Chicago Home & Garden and more. Ms. Skolnik is also regular contributor to numerous print and online publications on business, real estate, personal finance, women’s issues, education, relationships, travel, gardening, architecture, design and food.