Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


These days it's not an uncommon conundrum: A woman who owns a home of her own becomes engaged to a man who also possesses a property. Once wed, they suddenly face perplexing questions -- Should they sell one house and move to the other? Or should they sell both and move to a third?

To those struggling to buy a first home, this situation sounds like an embarrassment of riches. Yet those in the throes of it often feel differently.

"In reality, this can be a very tough problem because there are so many financial and emotional factors to consider," says Kevin O'Reilly, a certified financial planner affiliated with the Garrett Planning Network (

O'Reilly says it can be especially hard for couples to resolve the two-house challenge if one of the partners was married previously and still lives in a home once shared with an ex-spouse.

"It can cast a massive shadow around a new marriage," he says.

O'Reilly tells the true story of a couple of clients who searched for a resolution for nearly two years after they wed.

This 30-something couple, both professionals, came to the marriage with two mid-sized suburban houses. The husband, whose two teenagers from his former marriage lived with him, argued for his place because it was located near his kids' high school. But the wife resisted the idea of moving to a home where the ex-wife had lived.

It took five sessions with their financial planner before the couple decided to rent out the wife's property and live in the man's house -- though only until his kids complete high school. After that, they expect to sell both houses and buy a brand-new place.

Such complicated problems are becoming increasingly common due to later-in-life marriages and the reality that more young adults now spend years pursuing their education and careers before tying the knot, marriage expert Elizabeth Marquardt says.

Here are pointers for two-house couples who are newly married:

-- Share your thoughts on housing with your new spouse.

These days, an increasing number of people who marry have had years of independent living. Because of that, it's all the more important that they listen to each other when making joint decisions.

Before making any major housing decisions, O'Reilly recommends that couples write out a list of their personal priorities. For instance, the husband might place a premium on a two-car garage and a short commute. But the wife might value living in a large suburban property.

"It's always better to write down your thoughts rather than just tossing ideas in the air. Writing things out forces you to think things through," O'Reilly says.

If a deadlock develops, the couple might consider consulting a financial planner or an accountant for some third-party objectivity. An adviser may be able to help spur the conversation to a breakthrough that works for both husband and wife.

-- Open your mind to other housing alternatives.

Those remarrying after their children are grown typically have more housing alternatives than do those still raising young children. They don't need to worry about access to quality schools or nearby athletic fields.

"Once your children are grown, your needs change. One person might want to move to the country and raise horses. The other might want to live in a condo in the city," says Dorcas Helfant, former president of the National Association of Realtors (

One way to address the subject of where to live, Helfant says, is to visualize your ideal free time. For example, on a Saturday would you rather tend roses or attend a jazz festival?

By listing your preferred activities, you'll bring into focus the kind of location and property that would best suit you and your spouse in coming years.

-- Factor financial realities into your planning.

In the wake of the economic downturn, many residential properties are "underwater," meaning more is owed on the mortgage than the home is worth. Although property values are again rising in many parts of the country, a large number of homeowners have yet to regain the ground they lost.

Should a two-home couple hang onto an underwater property and rent it out in hopes it will soon recover value? Or should they let it go now? According to O'Reilly, that depends on several key variables.

"The main factors to consider are how underwater your home is and the economics of renting in your area. Remember there's always an element of risk in renting -- if your tenants don't pay in a timely way or if they damage the house," he says.

-- Consider selling both of your homes and buying a new place together.

For many people launching into a new relationship, the idea of selling both their homes and starting fresh with a different place has tremendous appeal, according to O'Reilly.

"Financial factors aren't everything for couples. There's also a strong emotional dimension to any housing decision. So buying a place where neither of you have lived before might be your best possible choice," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at