Smart Moves

What to Do With an Extra House

Across America, first marriages are on the decline. But oddly, remarriages are increasing, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank. More than 60 percent of previously married men tie the knot again -- and more than half of women.

A second marriage often comes with an extra abode, raising the tricky question of where the couple should live. Should they reside in her place or his? Or should they sell both and buy a third, neutral space in another community where neither has roots?

“The question of domicile is extremely sensitive and must be handled carefully,” says Dorcas Helfant, a real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Realtors.

Take the true story of a lawyer married to an association executive. At the time of their divorces, both had been living modest suburban lives. After they wed, they had many heated discussions on where to live jointly. Ultimately, they sold both houses and moved to a downtown condo with lots of contemporary features and luxury amenities.

“Sometimes it takes lots of arguing for a couple to reach consensus. But if you end up buying a house together, you’re likely to enjoy an exciting new beginning for your relationship,” Helfant says.

On the other hand, the best choice for a couple could be to pick the better located of the two properties.

“Compromise isn’t a dirty word when it comes to marital housing choices,” Helfant says.

There’s no one right answer for people who acquire a second home through marriage, says Jo Snyder-Ritter, a real estate broker since 1977. Nor is there one right answer for those who inherit a place and must decide whether to move to that property, rent it out or sell it.

For instance, suppose you and your siblings have inherited the family home where you were raised. If none of you wish to live there, you could decide to sell the property and split the proceeds in accord with your parents’ wishes. But if one of you has the desire and means to buy the others out, that could be the better option.

“However you acquire an extra home, you must decide what’s best for you,” says Snyder-Ritter, who’s affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists.

She tells the true story of one of her clients, an engineer and an only child who inherited his mother’s ranch-style property. He and his wife, the parents of two young children, decided to move to his mother’s home because it was larger and better located than the place where they’d been living.

“Changing houses let them step up to a prestige neighborhood with excellent schools for their kids. So, in this case, selling their old house and moving to the mom’s place was the right choice,” Snyder-Ritter says.

Here are a few pointers:

-- Ponder your retirement plans before locking in a housing decision.

James J. Casey, a certified financial planner, recommends that those who acquire an extra house through marriage or inheritance consider their options in light of a holistic financial plan, including their need for retirement savings.

If the extra home you acquire is much larger than where you live now, he urges you to factor in higher utility costs before deciding to upsize.

Casey also discourages newly married couples from hanging onto an extra property for an extended period.

“Get down to one residence as soon as possible,” he says.

Would you like to work with a financial planner to formulate your housing plan? If so, Casey suggests you ask friends or relatives for names or contact a trusted accountant or attorney for referrals.

“People in these professions are very careful who they recommend,” Casey says.

-- Ask for advice from experienced real estate pros.

Once you’ve set your total housing budget -- factoring in the need for savings -- Casey says you should seek information on the market values of the properties you own, looking to real estate agents for counsel.

He recommends you meet with at least two to three agents, asking them about recent neighborhood sales and how much you could reasonably expect to make if you sell or rent your extra property.

As Casey says, a reputable agent shouldn’t press you to liquidate a house.

“When you meet with the agents, you’ll be able to tell who’s on top of their game and who’s just trying to push for a sale. You can discount the advice of anyone just pushing for a sale,” he says.

-- Don’t limit yourself to a single neighborhood.

Would a second marriage give you the option of moving to an entirely different area? If so, don’t automatically rule that out. Changing lifestyles can be a positive experience for those open to the experience.

“Many times, moving to a new area puts a positive spin on a couple’s life,” Helfant says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)

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