After she signed the contract for her new apartment in southern China, Guo Miaomiao, 32, ran through the mental list of what she would get to enjoy as a homeowner. A leather couch in the living room. A pumpkin pendant lamp that she’d been eyeing online.
And, most important, a way to defy expectations in China about the role that a woman should play in a marriage.
“I’ve seen too many cases, including among my relatives and friends, where the husband buys the house, and the minute the couple argues, the husband tells her to get out,” said Ms. Guo, who works at a technology company in the city of Guangzhou. “This gives me confidence that if I do get married, I won’t be afraid of anything. Even if I leave him, I can live independently.”
Ms. Guo is one of a growing number of unmarried Chinese women buying property — a trend that strikes at one of Chinese society’s most deeply rooted gender norms. For centuries, men, no matter their income level, have been expected to own a home to be eligible for marriage. For married women, in turn, the home of their husband effectively becomes their only one, as they are no longer considered part of their birth families, or as a Chinese saying puts it: “A married daughter is like water splashed away.”
Now, more Chinese women are demanding homes of their own.
A recent survey by China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper, found that nearly 94 percent of respondents approved of single women buying property, with two-thirds saying it signaled a desire for gender equality. While official statistics on the actual rate of homeownership are limited, one government survey in 2020 found that the percentage of unmarried women who owned property had risen to 10.3 percent from 6.9 percent a decade earlier. And the numerical bump was even greater, as the number of single women aged 25 and older had grown by nearly 10 million during the same period.
The increase in female buyers is coinciding with intense turmoil in China’s housing sector. Many big and small developers have run out of money and left apartments unfinished, driving away prospective customers. Buyers like Ms. Guo saw an opportunity: She took advantage of the drop in housing prices and mortgage rates to buy a finished, and partly furnished, two-bedroom unit.
On Chinese social media, property agents have begun targeting single women, posting promotional videos with hashtags like “a little house suitable for single ladies.”
“It’s an awakening toward the rights of women,” said Wang Mengqi, an assistant professor of anthropology at Duke Kunshan University in Suzhou who has studied the property purchasing patterns of young Chinese. The shift is part of growing attention to women’s rights more generally. Though the Chinese government, as part of its larger crackdown on civil society, has tried to suppress feminist activists and organizations, topics such as the #MeToo movement and the lack of domestic violence protections have frequently topped social media discussions in recent years. Concerns about a slowing economy and an emerging preference for an independent lifestyle have also led many young Chinese to reject marriage altogether, with the number of marriage registrations in 2022 dropping to a record low of 6.8 million.
Ms. Guo, the home buyer in Guangzhou, developed an insecurity around housing from an early age. Growing up in a big family with eight siblings in a conservative area of Guangdong Province, it became clear, from things her relatives and friends said, that once married, she wouldn’t be able to live in her parents’ home anymore.
Ms. Guo, who described herself as naturally rebellious, resolved early on to buy herself a home. After graduating from college, she worked in several big cities across China, chasing increasingly ambitious job opportunities. In the last five years, she saved $70,000. And in March, she turned her dream into reality.
“I want to prove to everyone that women are not limited to the only option of marriage. I could have many other choices,” Ms. Guo said.
Alongside changing attitudes, practical changes such as rising incomes have also helped increase the rate of single female homeownership. In 2021, the number of Chinese women receiving college education overtook the number of men, according to official statistics. And the number of female workers in urban areas is up by nearly 40 percent compared with a decade ago.
Legal developments have also made wives more aware of the financial risks of living in homes their husbands own. Until 2011, divorce courts treated family homes as joint property. But as both property prices and divorce rates soared, China’s supreme court ruled that property acquired before marriage belonged only to the person who had either made the down payment or bought the property outright — leaving many divorced women essentially homeless, even if they had contributed to mortgage payments.
That change helped Zhang Ye, a 27-year-old accountant in the western city of Xi’an, persuade her parents to help her buy an apartment. She would have to help a future husband make mortgage payments anyway, she argued, so her own property would be a savvier — and safer — financial investment.
“Otherwise, after I get married, I pay the mortgage with my husband, but still don’t own the place,” she said.
Ms. Zhang’s parents agreed and paid most of the down payment for a riverside apartment that had had one previous owner.
In Changsha, a city in southern China, women made up more than half of the people who bought homes through Beike Zhaofang, one of the country’s biggest online property agencies, the company said. The women either bought the homes on their own or invested in them with partners, according to Beike, which said Changsha was the city with the highest percentage of female buyers, based on transactions on its platform.
The recent trend is still far from overturning the longstanding gender imbalance in property ownership. In 2018, the rate of property ownership among all urban female residents was only half that of male residents, according to a study by Peking University. The gap is even starker in rural areas.
By contrast, it is common for financially struggling families to help sons buy property — even taking on debt if needed — because of the perception that it is a prerequisite for marriage.
Tyler Wu, a Changsha property agent, said that many of the young female buyers he has encountered have opted for smaller condominiums or previously owned apartments.
Traditional expectations can dissuade prospective buyers in other ways, too. On social media, women have shared that men they have been set up with through matchmaking services have become less interested in them upon learning that they already own property.
Ms. Zhang’s boyfriend of five years objected when she told him she had decided to buy a property. He worried that it would take away from her ability to help pay his mortgage after they married, she said. But Ms. Zhang ignored him.
“I didn’t bother to try and persuade him,” she said. “Ever since I was a child, whatever decision I make, I stick to it.”