If Mama ain’t happy…

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When it comes to house hunting, women are the first to admit they can be picky. For example: a single mom vetoed 37 houses before she chanced upon her just-right fit: a newly built, $350,000 home that boasted a spacious layout, killer walk-in closets and custom details such as crown molding, granite countertops and a gas fireplace — for no extra charge. How did she stumble upon this particular property? She was driving around in the area and saw a woman-centric sign by the entrance. Why did she stop? The sign intrigued her.

Men may think they run the world, but it’s women who are now getting the royal treatment from the housing industry. Indeed, housing-market watchers say that builders are working strenuously to win the hearts — and checkbooks — of female buyers. And with the economy punishing the sexes unevenly, single women have become an especially important force to be reckoned with in real estate. According to the National Association of Realtors, they now sign on the dotted line in nearly a quarter of all U.S. home deals — up 14% in 2010 from 1995.

To tap into this formidable market, more industry pros are marketing themselves as “certified” in women’s housing needs. Design Basics, an Omaha, Neb., outfit that trains and certifies woman-centric builders, says its roster of participating firms has more than quadrupled to 70 in the four years since it launched the program.

Developers nationwide are increasingly touting home features to address what they believe women want — think security (more), maintenance (less) and organizing hectic lives with amenities such as walk-in pantries and “drop zones” for groceries. Builders are trying to catch women’s eyes with carefully chosen aesthetic flourishes — right down to brass cabinet knobs — so often invisible to Joe “Where do I put the plasma TV?” Guy Buyer.

And sales teams are exploring selling tactics such as paint-color psychology and spa nights, while doing everything they can to reduce the intimidation factor of the purchase process for solo female buyers. Home-marketing consultant Sara Lamia summed up the industry’s growing fixation on women when she addressed a gathering at this year’s International Builders’ Show: “If mama ain’t happy, you’re dead in the water.”

A passing fad?

To critics, of course, the idea that new homes are more mama-friendly is just marketing hooey from an industry starved for sales. And even woman-centric builders acknowledge that men are just as likely as women to crave roomy closets or sleek countertops.

But hype-driven or not, the wooing of the XX-chromosome crew is the byproduct of genuine demographic and social trends. Women are tying the knot later, pursuing higher degrees and continuing to close the salary gap, with never-married women now earning 94% of what their single male counterparts do. Fewer women are “waiting for Mr. Right to build a nest egg,” says Linda Hebert, trustee of the National Association of Home Builders Professional Women in Building Council; small wonder that they’re not waiting to nest, either.

Ironically, the beleaguered economy that the housing bubble created may be giving women, particularly younger ones, their biggest shot at homeownership. In the current malaise, people working in the financial and manufacturing sectors — mostly men — took it on the chin first. In 2010 alone, more men than women lost their jobs, by a ratio of three to one.

And in a housing market where depressed prices are creating bargains, 20- and 30-year-old women see their chance to build equity. Most men in this age range are sitting on the buying sidelines.

Even with more single women diving into the homebuying pool, real-estate experts say understanding and meeting their needs takes work. Design Basics says it’s making a concerted effort to study what women want through focus groups and in-home observation. Builders seeking to be certified as woman-centric by the firm sit through a two-day seminar get bombarded with research and coached on how to retool their blueprints and marketing plans. Ultimately, for a fee of as much as $10,000 annually, they’re allowed to stamp their websites and e-mail signatures with the firm’s woman-centric seal. Some of the program’s suggested feminine features? Wall-mounted gift-wrapping stations with retractable shelves, “serenity packages” (up to $5,000 extra) that include noise-muffling walls to drown out upstairs laundry machines, and hidden storage in the bathroom walls for reading materials and feminine products.

Women are drawn to “feminine” details such as hair-dryer-ready drawers (plug included) and 360- degree mirrors. But while the average 54-year-old professional appreciates thoughtful amenities, her top priority isn’t seeing the back of her hair; like the majority of single female homebuyers, it’s security, so she’s focusing on gated communities. She’s hoping to find a walkable, convenient neighborhood. She’d like the design to have a bit of “romance” to it, she says, but as is the case with many women, she’s avoiding fixer-uppers. They don’t like the pre-owned feel.

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