Homes before husbands: why younger Chinese women put their trust in real estate

Recent changes to laws under leader Xi Jinping mean that marrying is more of a risk for women.
By Jane Tang
Homes before husbands: why younger Chinese women put their trust in real estate A wedding couple holding their marriage certificates pose for photos in Beijing, July 9, 2021.

New marriage-friendly policies being introduced by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as part of a campaign to return to traditional family roles under leader Xi Jinping have met with a less-than-enthusiastic reception among the country's young women, many of whom told RFA they would prefer to focus on owning their own home.

Young, unmarried women are emerging as a fast-growing segment of the property market, as many women see more of a future in real estate than in marrying and having kids.

"The day the sale was completed, I picked up the keys and took the documents across the street where I had a bowl of hot and sour noodles," divorced millennial Joey Zhou, who saved enough for a down payment on her first home through a job in Beijing's financial sector, told RFA.

"Sitting there in the cafe, I knew I would be in debt from the moment I swiped my card," she recalled. "But the psychological sense of security was hard to describe."

Qi Sun, a 34-year-old tech employee, bought herself a 60-square-meter apartment in Shanghai’s Songjiang district in the summer of 2021, following the advice of a friend and to avoid a sense of insecurity that came from renting.

"My friend said that it could be easier to buy a house than to find a boyfriend," Sun said with a wry smile, before adding: "But when I bought a house, I really started to feel that getting married isn't so important any more."

Sun said many of young women in her social circle are doing the same.

"All of my female friends who have bought a home have almost no regrets," she said. "Their only regret is why they didn't grit their teeth and get a bigger one."

Zhou and Sun aren't alone.

A 2021 report by the Shell Research Institute found that more women are buying homes than men in several major cities including Chongqing and Tianjin.

The proportion of women buying houses in 30 key cities in China has risen from 45.60 percent in 2017 to 47.54 percent in 2020, with much faster growth rates reported among female buyers under 29.

Once the preserve of anxious parents looking to nab a property in a good school district, rich elders looking to buy a home for young newly-weds or real estate speculators, China's real estate market is increasingly being used by young women to seek a sense of security and self-worth outside marriage.

A joint report in 2021 by realtor and Anjuke found that some 82 percent of women are planning to buy a home in the next five years, while 40 percent want to be owner-occupiers within two years.

"Many of these young women come from a generation of only children [under the one-child policy], and their sense of themselves was shaped during the 1980s and 1990s," professor Dong Yige of the State University of New York at Buffalo told RFA.

"Their vision for themselves is to have their own lives, their own property, and an independent sense of who they are," Dong said. "And yet now they're being told that women are expected to be good wives and mothers, and stay home to help the kids with their homework."

Dong said such rhetoric from CCP leaders is unlikely to cut much ice among a generation that has been left to battle a rising tide of sexism at work and in society at large.

"They are finding that the [job] market discriminates against women, as does being married," Dong said. "In a situation where the wealth divide is widening ... the best option for individuals is to invest all of their resources into something they can own."

Emma Zang, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Yale University, said changes to the official judicial interpretation of China's Marriage Law in 2011 have also affected this generation of women.

"Before 2011, the changes in Chinese marriage laws were generally conducive to protecting the rights and interests of women during divorce," Zang told RFA. "When a couple divorced, the law considered the marital home to be the joint property of the couple."

"But a new judicial interpretation of the Marriage Law was promulgated in 2011, which decreed that the ownership of the marital home depends on whose signature is on the property deeds," she said. "Chinese traditional custom has it that the husband's name is on the property deeds."

Growing discontent, but less keen on divorce

Zang said married women have become less keen on divorce since then, because they could lose their property, while there is also growing discontent among women who stay married.

"We also find that women are spending more time on household chores [than their husbands], and they have less confidence in the future," she added.

All of those factors mean that young women have more incentive to remain single, and to invest in property on their own account, Zang said.

These attitudes are already being reflected in official marriage statistics, with 8.13 million couples marrying in 2020, compared with 10 million in 2019. Marriage figures are at their lowest point since 2003, and 60 percent lower than a recent peak in 2013.

The government has responded to falling marriage rates with a new mandatory, 30-day "cooling-off" period for couples seeking divorce that took effect from Jan. 1, 2022.

For Joey Zhou, she decided to leave her marriage before the process was complicated by children, but still ran into opposition from her family.

"I never expected that the hardest part of my divorce would be convincing my parents," Zhou said. "They are very traditional, and think that a woman should stay married."

But for Zhou, both the traditional sense of marital obligation nor the romantic ideal of soulmates sharing their lives forever are now a busted flush.

"Some people will tell you that it's hard to marry a woman who already has her own home," Zhou said. "I say, stay away from people like that."

"People like that are exactly the reason why people like me want to buy a home before getting married," Zhou said. "But we girls all know that we have to make a living first, and then look for love."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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