Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Moving With a Blended Family

Although divorce rates are down all over America, many children still live in a blended household with a step-parent, stepsibling or half-sibling. Indeed, the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, estimates that 16 percent of all children live in such households.

After a remarriage involving kids, a typical pattern is that everyone in the blended family moves into a property already owned by one of the parents. That commonly means all the kids will live together, at least part of the time. But real estate specialists say such an arrangement is often problematic, especially if the kids have to share bedrooms.

"This can cause a lot of tension," says Ashley Richardson, a long-time real estate agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (crs.com).

Through the years, Richardson says she's noticed a pattern among blended families who attempt to live together in too small a house.

"Once the kids start to grow up -- say by the time they reach 8 or 9 -- I'll get a call saying they need to buy a new house where every kid has their own bedroom," she says.

Michael Knight, a certified financial planner with the Garrett Planning Network (garrettplanningnetwork.com), says it's important for the parents in a blended family to debate the pros and cons of various housing scenarios.

Here are pointers for blended families:

-- Share your goals and priorities.

People who marry for the second time typically have years of independent living behind them, often as the head of a single-parent family. They've been free to make their own decisions without discussion. This makes it all the more vital that when facing a major housing choice, they talk it over.

"They need to take a clean piece of paper and list their own individual requirements, putting these in priority order. Then they should interview each other and ask why each item is important," Knight says.

If such a dialogue fails to yield answers, the couple might consider consulting a financial adviser for a few hours, he says. The adviser can serve as a catalyst, helping direct the conversation in a way that could yield workable answers.

"There's a benefit to third party objectivity," Knight says.

-- Rethink your preferences on location.

The parents in a blended family could opt for a neighborhood new to all involved. That could translate to new schools for all the kids, a potentially thorny issue.

One way to approach the topic of where to live, says Dorcas Helfant, a real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Realtors (realtor.org), is to visualize what your family would enjoy doing in your free time, whether that's raising puppies, planting a big garden or attending lots of movies.

By listing your favorite activities, you'll get a feel for the sort of location that would best suit you and others in your blended household.

-- Factor in your financial future along with your present needs.

It's no secret that many adults are short on retirement savings. By the same token, it's hardly a surprise that financial planners such as Knight would caution against maxing out on a mortgage until you've put away enough to fund your retirement.

How do you know if you and your partner are amassing enough money to someday retire comfortably? Answering this question requires thorough analysis, Knight says. You'll need to estimate your expected life span, the years you plan to spend in retirement and how much you'll need each year. For example, a couple who intends to travel abroad will likely need more money than one whose hobbies stick closer to home.

"Your core spending rate per year is driven by your lifestyle. Without doing the numbers, it's hard to know if you'll need $4,000 a month or $10,000," he says.

To help get a handle on your financial needs in retirement, you can use the free retirement planning calculators now widely available on the internet.

-- Consider buying a new place for your blended household.

Many children in blended families feel awkward moving into a space their stepbrothers and stepsisters have long called home. For similar reasons, a newly remarrying parent could be unhappy sharing space in a home once inhabited by a former spouse.

For many remarrying adults launching into a new relationship, the idea of moving into a place where no one in their blended family has lived before has tremendous appeal, Richardson says.

"Even if you can't afford a space that's bigger, you could still feel a lot more comfortable in a third property where you can start your family life anew," she says.

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