Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

ONE COUPLE, TWO HOUSES: WHAT TO DO AFTER THE WEDDING

Tom Early, a real estate broker since 1981, has seen a distinct trend across the decades. These days a woman is more likely to insist on keeping a home she bought before marriage -- even after partnering with a man who already owns a place.

"Sometimes a career woman refuses to surrender her property," says Early, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents. "She's earned that home and it's her trophy. That's the same way many men feel about their cave."

Of course, not every marrying couple can afford to keep two homes. And couples who plan to have children together usually favor living full-time under one roof. But empty nesters on their second marriage now occasionally opt for two domiciles, so long as they can see each other on weekends and vacations without undue hardship.

"Let's face it, most people aren't jet-setters like the celebrities in People magazine who marry but still keep her place in New York and his in Los Angeles. Besides, very few people want to live that far from a mate," Early says.

Even so, there are legitimate reasons why some couples wish to keep their two homes after the wedding. One is that very often partners -- who are committed to their respective careers -- originally bought properties near their places of work.

"Suppose she owns a house near her office in Minneapolis and he has a condo walking distance from his job in St. Paul. This is one couple who might decide to keep both the condo and the house and then rendezvous on weekends," Early says.

Alternatively, such a couple might split the difference, sell both properties and buy a place together that's midway between the two Minnesota cities.

But Mark Nash, author of "1001 Tips for Buying & Selling a Home," says more couples are now opting for a two-city lifestyle.

"We're getting away from what we used to call 'the trailing spouse.' Now each partner wants to keep what they have going into the relationship," he says.

In some instances, dual-city homeownership can enhance the romantic life of spouses who live separately on weekdays and then reunite at week's end, says Esther Perel, author of "Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence."

The weekends "can be a wonderful reunion time for some couples," Perel says.

Of course, there can be pitfalls in the dual-city approach to homeownership. Here are a few pointers:

-- Consider the implications if young children are involved.

Perel cautions that such a situation can add stress when one or both partners are parenting infants, toddlers or school-age kids.

"This living arrangement can become burdensome to the person who manages the children during weekdays," she says, adding that this situation can lead to resentment in the partner who's shouldering more responsibility.

Also, she says kids who grow up with parents who live in two households may be shortchanged the kind of nurturing they need to thrive -- even if the parents are happily married.

-- Think twice about the impact of added travel.

"All that travel back and forth can become tiresome on the relationship," Perel notes.

Travel costs can also mount up.

"People sometimes forget to add up the full cost of commuter marriages in both time and money," Nash says.

-- Factor in the financial consequences beyond travel costs.

When considering expenses associated with the ownership of two homes, Nash says you should always look beyond the cash flow implications of carrying two mortgages. Also make sure you add in the extra costs you'll likely face for insurance, taxes, repairs and maintenance.

To assess the full financial implications of dual-city homeownership, Nash recommends you consider meeting with a trusted financial planner who's paid on a fee-only basis, rather than from commissions on the sale of stocks or insurance.

"Look for someone who can objectively evaluate whether it's prudent to keep two homes -- not a planner who will try selling you lots of financial products," Nash says.

One way to find a fee-only planner in your area is to visit the website of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors: www.napfa.org. Also, you can find fee-only planners willing to work with you for just an hour or two by visiting the website of the Garrett Planning Network: www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

-- Realize the possibility that distance could enhance your relationship.

Couples who choose to live in two homes are taking a non-traditional route. But, as Nash says, this avenue could be one that maintains the quality of life for one or both partners -- especially if it results in professional fulfillment and their two properties appreciate in value over time.

Also, Nash says he knows a number of two-house couples who've avoided the kind of bickering that sometimes troubles those who live together all the time.

"As the old expression goes, 'familiarity breeds contempt.' But when you see each other only on weekends and vacations, you're less aware of each other's flaws and more aware of the love that brought you together in the first place," he says.

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