Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Eliminating the Arguing When Buying

A couple in their mid-30s married a few weeks after discovering their first child was on the way. To save rent money toward a home purchase, they moved temporarily into a rundown place owned by the husband's parents.

All went smoothly until the couple transitioned to the home-buying stage. The man wanted a large garage, but kept his preference to himself. Meanwhile, the wife spotted a hilltop house with no garage that she adored, and talked her husband into its purchase.

Regrettably, the couple's marriage didn't last long after they moved to the hilltop house. One factor leading to the breakup was the husband's smoldering resentment over how their homebuying decision was reached. He felt his wife made the choice unilaterally.

The latest available data from the National Association of Realtors shows that married couples now make up the largest share of homebuyers (66 percent) and have the highest average income ($99,200). But as this true story illustrates, housing decisions not made collaboratively can be rough on relationships.

"It's not surprising that tensions can erupt when you're dealing with the largest financial decision of your lives," says Tom Early, a real estate broker who twice served as president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents.

To avoid the kind of arguments that housing decisions can engender, he recommends that couples go out of their way to understand each other's preferences.

Here are a few pointers for home-buying couples:

-- First determine how much you can afford to spend.

Many couples launch an elaborate property search before first setting their spending limits. But experienced real estate agents urge buyers to start by talking to a reputable mortgage lender who can give them affordability guidelines.

"Price comes first because it dictates how much of your wish list is actually doable," says Ashley Richardson, an agent who's sold property since 1993.

"You don't have to commit to taking out your mortgage from the first lender you see. But chances are you'll get better service and more solid information from a local lender than someone on the Internet you can only contact by phone or email," she says.

Why is it easier for couples to reach agreement if they first obtain mortgage pre-approval? Because, as Richardson says, those who know their spending limits are more realistic, which makes compromise easier.

-- Select a neighborhood as your next step.

Obviously, picking the right neighborhood is a personal choice that no real estate agent can make for you. For that reason, Richardson suggests you evaluate several neighborhoods before asking an agent to pinpoint listings in any area.

"You can save a lot of time by identifying your favorite neighborhood early and then finding a real estate agent who truly specializes in that community," Richardson says.

She recommends that couples discuss the neighborhood features most important to them. They need to decide, for example, whether it's more important to live close to work or in an area with lots of verdant open space.

Though many homebuyers spend ample time comparing neighborhoods through Internet searches, Richardson recommends they also spend some weekend hours driving through neighborhoods of interest, stopping by open houses.

-- Determine which features you're willing to trade off.

Many couples with young children are anxious to move up from a small starter home to a place with more bedrooms and bathrooms. They typically find it easy to agree on their space needs.

But beyond these core requirements, some couples argue about the next most important property features. For instance, is it more important to buy a place with a two-car garage or a large lot?

Because few couples can afford a home with every feature they want, Richardson encourages the partners to give each other a list of priorities. That way, both husband and wife will likely get more of what they want.

"To avoid fights, they have to be clear on their top concerns," she says.

-- Don't rule out buying a place that needs reasonable renovations.

Gone are the days when most homebuyers were willing to take out the largest mortgage they could obtain. Though good jobs are now more abundant than they were in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, many couples still fear maxing out on a home loan.

"One way to deal with the huge problem of affordability, especially for first-time buyers, is to consider a place that's priced below market but needs only superficial upgrades to make it desirable," Early says.

To find out if the improvements you'll need would fit in your budget, call contractors for cost estimates even before you sign a sales contract.

"Many busy people hate the concept of home improvement. But if you're a couple for whom cost is a major concern, agreeing on a house that needs only painting, new carpet or other cosmetic fixes could let you own a place that will ultimately make both of you happy without a stressful strain on your budget," Early says.

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