Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


Choosing a 30-year-old Georgian-style house proved a costly error for a school administrator and her husband, a financial adviser. Indeed, it may have cost them their marriage.

The wife thought the house, with its old-school floor plan, was charming -- the tiny bathrooms and small closets didn't bother her. But after the couple moved in, the husband wished they'd opted for a more spacious place with an open flow from room to room. He was especially unhappy that his two SUVs wouldn't fit in the garage.

Within a few years after the couple bought the house, they divorced, recalls Eric Tyson, one of the husband's college classmates and a personal finance expert. He believes bickering over the house could have damaged their relationship.

"When couples buy a house and take on large mortgage payments, that's a very big deal. Apart from the money, a house choice has strong emotional implications," he says.

Tyson, author of "Mind over Money: Your Path to Wealth and Happiness," says it's extremely common for couples to differ on housing.

To avoid this result, Tyson thinks it's wise for partners to go over their goals and reconcile differences before committing to a particular neighborhood or property. Here are a few pointers:

-- Make it a priority to discuss your core beliefs about money.

"Money is a kind of taboo. Because it's not romantic, people are often afraid to bring up the subject before they get married -- or even after -- for fear of upsetting the apple cart," Tyson says.

But money issues are so paramount to a couple's plans that failure to address them early on "can create a lot of fireworks and marital discord later," Tyson says.

Before a solid housing compromise can be reached, a couple needs to unearth their underlying, and often unstated, beliefs about money, Tyson says. In his book, he offers several simple exercises to help people explore their unspoken values on financial topics.

"Go away for an hour or two to a beach or park to just talk things over. Do this before you get enmeshed in the particulars of choosing the right community or house," he says.

-- Select a neighborhood before considering specific houses.

From the outset, a couple should decide if they want to max out on their mortgage eligibility. After that, it's time to pick one or more neighborhoods that suit both partners, says Tom Early, a former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (

Neighborhood choices should be made systematically, Early says. Ideally, both partners will itemize and rank their priorities in terms of the selection of a neighborhood and then compile a unified list.

Perhaps one partner craves the beauty and serenity of a rural community, while the other favors a city neighborhood where restaurants and entertainment options are a short walk away. So they settle on a semi-suburban planned community where both partners get some features they want.

-- Create "I don't like" lists to guide your home shopping.

Years of experience as an independent real estate broker have taught Early how to help clients develop appropriate screening criteria for the right property. In this role, he discovered a powerful tool: the "I don't like" list.

The idea is for each partner to indicate the elements of their current property that he or she dislikes. "If you reverse what you hate in a habitat, you'll more easily identify what you really do want," Early says.

-- Request that your real estate agent help work out differences.

A couple can have major differences in architectural tastes. Perhaps one partner hankers for a single-level contemporary akin to the homes Frank Lloyd Wright designed. Meanwhile, the other partner dreams of the sort of place you'd see in Colonial Williamsburg.

In instances where the gulf in tastes is as wide as this, Tyson says it might prove wise for a third party to step in to help bridge the gulf. This could be the real estate agent you've chosen to represent you as buyers.

"A good agent should have the skills to help couples reach agreement," Tyson says.

-- Leave the kids home when you go house hunting.

Suppose you and your spouse are struggling to find a happy medium between his preference for a low-maintenance two-bedroom condo and your desire for a four-bedroom suburban villa on an expanse of land.

Your tentative plan is to buy a three-bedroom townhouse with a larger-than-average backyard. Meanwhile, your children are protesting any move whatsoever. To appease them, you consider letting them interject themselves in the decision-making process.

But Tyson urges you to avoid bringing your kids along on house-hunting outings, at least until you narrow your choices down to two or three properties.

"It's hard enough for the parents to bridge their differences without adding the kids' opinions to the mix. Remember that a home-buying decision should be reserved for the grownups in the family, not for small kids or teenagers who can't evaluate the big picture," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at