Looking back, a Silicon Valley couple in their 30s realizes it was a big mistake to buy a house in a premier suburb close to elite private schools. They still own the house, but their marriage continues to suffer the pressure of payments that exceed half their income and have forced them to rely on loans from their parents.
"Truthfully, buying that house was very wrong for this couple. They overshot their budget, and that's cost them many sleepless nights and polarizing fights," says Deborah Price, an expert on couple's financial issues who cites this true-life example of how the wrong real estate choices can lead to untold stress on a relationship.
"At the time, they didn't forecast how their decision would backfire on their marriage," says Price, the author of "The Heart of Money: A Couple's Guide to Creating True Financial Intimacy."
Because the purchase of real estate is the largest financial decision most couples make, Price urges them to talk through any underlying issues that could color their thinking.
For example, she says one partner might be a "spender" who's comfortable with a large mortgage, while the other is a "saver" who becomes very anxious when facing challengingly high house payments.
To avoid missteps, Price encourages couples who disagree to seek professional guidance to clarify and align their plans in order to find a workable option. For example, the Silicon Valley couple could have chosen a less expensive neighborhood served by tuition-free charter schools.
One option is to work with one of the new breed of "money coaches." These are typically financial advisers or therapists who've received special training on how to advise people on money issues. Price heads the Money Coaching Institute (www.moneycoachinginstitute.com), which has trained more than 400 such coaches in the last 14 years.
Here are a few other pointers for couples looking for a home:
-- Discuss your core beliefs.
"If you're unprepared, conversations around what to buy can get extremely contentious," says Leo Berard, a real estate broker and charter president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org). He recalls how, on several occasions, he had to halt a property tour involving young clients after they began to bicker.
"There was no point going on until they stepped back and talked out their differences," Berard says.
"For a lot of people, finances are a taboo subject," says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and author of several books on the topic.
But money matters, including key decisions on housing, are so paramount to a couple's plans that failure to address them can "really hurt the relationship later on, particularly if one partner resents the choice they've made," Tyson says.
Before making a firm home-buying decision, Tyson says it can be helpful for couples to use paper-and-pencil exercises to explore their underlying values. He offers several such exercises in his book, "Mind Over Money: Your Path to Wealth and Happiness."
-- Make your neighborhood choice before considering specific houses.
A couple's money talks give them a broad framework to help decide if they're both comfortable maxing out their mortgage eligibility. After that, it's time to pick one or more communities that appeal to both partners, says Berard.
Neighborhood choices should be made systematically, according to Berard. Ideally, both partners will itemize and rank their priorities and then compile a unified list.
Perhaps one partner hankers for an urban neighborhood with close access to restaurants and cultural venues. Meanwhile, the other is drawn to a leafier environment. In such a case, they might wish to settle for a semi-suburban area where both can enjoy some of the features they want.
-- Consider what you dislike in your present home to decide on features you want.
Years of experience as co-owner of an independent realty company taught Berard how to help clients develop screening criteria to find the right property. In doing so, he discovered a powerful tool: the "I don't want list."
The idea is for both partners to indicate what they don't like about their current residence. For example, perhaps the husband hates the tiny kitchen and the wife is unhappy about the noisy street outside.
"When you reverse the factors you loathe, it's easier to see what you actually do want," Berard says.
-- Request that your real estate agent help you mediate.
Obviously, a couple can be happily married despite having major differences in architectural taste. Maybe one favors a traditional colonial house while the other wants a contemporary structure akin to the homes Frank Lloyd Wright designed.
In instances where the gulf in taste is wide, Tyson says it's sometimes possible for a real estate agent to help reach a realistic solution.
"After listening to both people, a good agent can provide an element of objectivity that's very useful," Tyson says.
-- Resist your kids' pleas to go along on house-hunting excursions.
Perhaps you and your spouse have reached a firm compromise to buy a mid-sized townhouse with a small patio that fits your budget. But your young children are pleading for a larger place with a huge backyard.
In such an instance, you might be tempted to let your kids join you as you search for property. But Price, of the Money Coaching Institute, argues against doing so -- at least until you've narrowed your choices to just a few options you can afford.
"Your kids have their own agenda, and they don't necessarily know the practical realities facing you," she says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)