BACK IN the day, women thought

homeownership came with a husband and 2.5 kids. Not any more.

At least 22 percent of all homes sold in the U.S. last year were purchased by single women - the not-yet-marrieds, divorcees and widows. And most of these independent ladies bought condominiums.

A report - "Buying for Themselves: An Analysis of Unmarried Female Homebuyers" - by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, characterizes unmarried female buyers as "a diverse and highly segmented group comprised of single mothers, young singles, middle-aged divorcees and seniors" who purchased more than $550 billion in real estate between 2000 and 2003.

"The findings are striking: Not only are unmarried women a larger segment of the home-buying population, but they are fast-growing, increasing their share of home buyers by 50 percent in eight years," the report says. Single men account for just 9 percent of home purchases.

Numbers like these make condo developers like J.A. Reinhold Residential and Urban Residential very happy. Both developers are now marketing condo conversion projects in Center City. Both report significant numbers of single women buyers flocking to their sales centers.

Urban Residential is in the midst of converting the old Lewis Tower office building at 15th and Locust streets into the Aria, having 114 luxury condos, the first of which will be ready for occupancy this summer.

So far the buyers who have snapped up 40 percent of the units reflect the national demographics - 20 percent are women living on their own.

Christopher Westley, vice president of sales and marketing for Urban Residential, says these lone females are looking for more than a safe place to nest when they come to the Aria. "Women are also looking for the finishes and the amenities and the Center City lifestyle that makes them feel young.

"About one third of the traffic that has come through the Aria sales center is single women," says Westley. "We have everything that they are looking for: a great location in the heart of the Avenue of the Arts district, a prime price-point and a high-end piece of real estate that comes with a variety of amenities that women want."

Westley is so in tune with the single-women home-buyer trend that he has even started planning female-focused events to get more potential buyers into the Aria. In fact, he is planning a "Conversations With . . . " series featuring prominent Philadelphia women.

The Aria is Urban Residential's first Philadelphia project to date. It will begin construction on a W Hotel at 12th and Arch Street later this year. The company has some 1,100 units in residential projects worth more than $800 million under construction along the East Coast.

Jeff Reinhold's company purchased five apartment buildings from Historic Landmarks for Living and is converting two of them - The Lofts at Logan View, 16th and Callowhill, and Locust Point, 24th and Locust - to sell as condos. The others will remain rentals, at least for now, and Reinhold will manage them just as he continues to manage the remainder of Historic Landmarks' apartment portfolio.

"These are affordable units at good locations for the person who is earning $50,000 to $100,000 a year," Reinhold says.

It was a combination of affordability and location that attracted Valerie Woolford, 44, who is trading a Voorhees, N.J., rental for a one-bedroom loft with a Schuylkill River view at Locust Point.

This isn't Woolford's first home, by a long shot. It is her third. She purchased her first home in 1993 after starting work as a special-education teacher. She now works as an education supervisor for the New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Services.

Her second home was purchased after Woolford married. That house was sold after her divorce two years ago, and Woolford became a renter while looking for her next buy.

"I was looking for something that would be a good investment as I get older," she says. And after paying more than $6,000 a year in property taxes on her former townhouse in Sicklerville, Woolford also was looking for a break from New Jersey taxes.

She wanted something on one floor in a modern, elevator building close to shopping and entertainment. Some place where she could age in place. She found it at Locust Point.

Thanks to the equity from her previous home, Woolford had no trouble making the down payment on her $290,000 condo.

While unmarried women capturing a larger share of housing sales is a national trend, Westley says it is more marked here than in other markets where Urban Residential is working.

The Harvard report gives several reasons for the national trend:

* A 20 percent increase in the number of unmarried women in the past decade, partly due to women delaying marriage in favor of education and careers.

* Fewer adult women than men chose to live with their parents, opting to form their own households instead.

* The economic upside of owning, which has been emphasized heavily by the media, enhances the view of a growing number of women that marriage is no longer a prerequisite to buying a home.

* Divorced women have accumulated equity in homes they owned with spouses and can use that wealth to buy their own homes as they set up their own households. *

Earni Young covers residential real estate in the city. E-mail her at younge@phillynews.com; for past columns, http://go.philly.com/young.