Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

When Couples Can't Agree Whether to Stay or Go

A couple in their 40s planned to sell their small 1950s-era house to buy a larger place with more space for their three pre-teen offspring. But just hours after receiving a solid offer, the wife panicked and sought to back away from all their plans for a move.

"She worried the family would be unhappy in the new house and wouldn't like their neighbors. And though the couple was fully qualified for higher payments on a move-up house, she was terrified of financial ruin," says Sid Davis, the real estate broker who'd listed the couple's property.

Because the husband was committed to moving, the wife's sudden bout of fear sparked a quarrel. It was only after Davis intervened to mediate when things calmed down. Ultimately, the sale went through and, after the move, both partners were very pleased to live in the new property.

Jane Fairweather, a real estate broker since 1985, says it's not unusual for couples to disagree about whether to sell a home, and that most of these disputes are resolvable. But it's never wise for one partner to try to coerce the other into a sale.

"It's important to get market-smart about what you can move to. Knowing where you're going brings a lot of relief to people with anxieties," Fairweather says.

Here are a few pointers for couples contemplating a home sale:

-- Inform yourselves about the financial realities of a potential sale.

Peter West, a real estate broker affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (crs.com), urges couples who disagree about selling to call in three agents for their opinion on the current market value of their property.

"You might be pleasantly surprised by what you discover," says West, who leads training seminars focused on real estate sales.

Couples who dig into recent data on home sales and rental rates are more likely to reach agreement than those who debate their housing choices solely on the basis of personal opinions.

"You've got to remember that whether and when to sell a house is a financial decision, not an emotional one. That's why the numbers are so important," West says.

Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (realtor.org), says the latest data on home sales present a mixed picture with wide variations in sales activity based on localities.

"The overall demand for buying is still solid entering the busy spring season, but home prices and rents outpacing wages, and anxiety about the health of the economy are holding back a segment of would-be buyers," Yun says.

To get an accurate sense of the current market value of their property, he advises prospective sellers to focus more on local data than national headlines.

-- Talk over your differences with a trusted adviser.

Mark Nash, author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home," says some couples emerge from discussions with real estate agents still at odds about moving. In such cases, Nash says a trusted accountant or financial adviser can often help guide you to a resolution.

"Though you have to pay for their services, you should get objective advice. And it shouldn't take more than an hour to go over your predicament," Nash says.

One way to find a financial planner who works on an hourly basis is through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (napfa.org).

-- Exercise caution before deciding to rent rather than sell your property.

Nash tells the true story of a couple whose plans changed suddenly after the husband accepted a job offer in San Francisco. They'd owned their Chicago condo for just two years when the offer came in, tempting them to rent out the apartment until it appreciated enough to give them a profit.

The couple argued about whether to rent or sell their condo until Nash, a long-time real estate broker, ran the numbers and convinced them that renting would lose them money. As he pointed out, the income they could generate from tenants would fall far short of their mortgage payments for at least three to five years.

"Renting out your home is not necessarily a break-even proposition, particularly if a lot of other people in the neighborhood have the same idea and the supply of rental units swells," Nash says.

-- Reserve time to discuss housing plans with your partner.

Clearly, decisions about real estate are among the most significant financial moves that couples make. And opposing views are especially hard to reconcile if, like many couples, they're absorbed in their careers and parenting obligations.

Instead of attempting to wedge these conversations into their busy schedules, Nash suggests that couples struggling to reach an agreement set aside a dedicated time for a thorough discussion of their plans.

"Maybe to get away for a Saturday to talk things over, you'll need to take the kids to their grandparents' house. But if that's what it takes to come to a harmonious decision on your real estate plans, it will be well worth it," he says.

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