Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How to Agree on the Right Home

Sid Davis, who's been selling real estate since 1984, rarely encounters home-buying partners who both want the exact same type of house.

"It doesn't matter if they're long married or just living together, more than 80 percent of people will have a different conception of the ideal size, style and features of the perfect place to buy," says Davis, author of "The Survival Guide For Buying a Home" and other books on real estate.

Why so many disputes? Davis theorizes that many buyers develop their housing preferences early in life. And the odds of those preferences being in perfect alignment are low.

He says one reliable way for couples to identify what each partner likes most and then to synthesize those expectations is to first look at a mix of properties in more than one target neighborhood.

"Realistically, many people don't know what they want until they see it in person. First-time buyers have a particularly tough time figuring out what they want," he says.

Here are a few pointers for buyers:

-- Get to the core issues that have influenced your spending patterns.

Many couples approach marriage with more focus on the wedding than their fundamental attitudes toward money and other basic values.

"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," says Eric Tyson, author of "Mind Over Money: Your Path to Wealth and Happiness," a book about money and emotions.

Before a solid housing compromise can be reached, a couple, whether married or simply living together, needs to unearth their underlying beliefs about money, says Tyson, whose book offers paper-and-pencil exercises to help people explore their unspoken values on financial topics.

"Go away for an hour or two to a quiet place ... and talk things over. Do this before you get absorbed in the particulars of a given property that one of you two really wants to buy," he says.

-- Try to agree on the right neighborhood before focusing on specific houses.

A couple's discussion about money gives them a broad framework that serves as a solid basis for their home-buying choice. Early on, you should decide whether you'd both feel at ease maxing out your mortgage eligibility. After that, it's time to pick one or more neighborhoods that suit both of you, says Tom Early, who twice served as president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

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

"After you've established one or two neighborhoods that work for both of you, you can focus intensely on a few properties that appeal to you," Early says.

-- Use "I don't like" lists to help in your housing selection process.

Years of experience as the owner of an independent realty company have taught Early how to help clients develop criteria for screening property. In doing so, he discovered a powerful tool: the "I don't want" list.

The idea is for each partner to indicate the elements of their current property that he or she doesn't like. "Reverse the elements you hate now and you'll easily see what's truly important to you. This could set the stage for compromise," Early says.

-- Request that your agent intervene if the two of you are deadlocked.

As Tyson notes, a couple can be happily married and yet have major differences in architectural tastes.

In cases where the gulf in tastes runs wide, Tyson says it's sometimes 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.

"Sometimes it helps if the agent enters the discussion as a referee who encourages compromise," Tyson says.

-- Leave your children at home when searching for the right home.

Suppose one homebuyer in a couple wants a sparkling new house on a small lot with state-of-the-art electronics while the other aspires to ownership of a charming older home with high ceilings and built-in cabinetry. In a case like that, some buyers draw their children into the discussion to help settle the matter.

But Tyson urges buyers to avoid soliciting the opinions of their kids -- at least until the final stage of their housing search.

"Your children shouldn't be the primary deciders. You know your tastes and have vastly more knowledge of your money situation than they do. Also, you have more at stake because you'll probably live in the house longer than your kids will," he says.

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