Negotiating the Nest

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Getting married is one of the biggest decisions a person can make. In fact, it just might be the biggest decision; with marital commitment comes dozens of other massive decisions, such as kids, cars and living arrangements. The wedding is just the first step in a serious of negotiated endeavors, and it’s a bit naive to think all of these future matters will be decided quickly and conclusively.

Of all of life’s choices, buying a house might just be the most delicate for married couples. In order to settle on the right property, you have to unpack everything. Finances, location, square footage, family size and school district all have a share of the influence over this decision, and chances that you and your husband or wife will find a discrepancy or two are pretty high.

Fortunately, your path to tying the knot has already taught you a thing or two about compromise. With the right approach, two people can find a house that meets their most pressing needs while balancing each party’s tastes and interests.

Because money plays such a big part in this adventure, you have to be patient and thoughtful throughout. The following tips proved very helpful for my wife and myself, and keeping these points in mind should help you and your spouse navigate the buying process.  

1. Pick Your Price

If you start with any part of the shopping process before assessing your finances, you put yourself in great peril. The word mortgage makes a lot of people cringe; that’s usually because we’ve heard so many first-hand accounts of people who took on a hefty mortgage and spent the next 30 years struggling to own the home they bought. I’m not a big fan of that version of homeownership.

Before you check out neighborhoods or debate how many bedrooms you need, it’s essential you have an idea of how much house you can afford. Look at your savings, your debts and your earnings; think of how much down payment you can afford right now; consider your career prospects and how a mortgage might affect that.

You will be tempted to spend more than you can afford. Once you start looking at houses on the market, you’ll both see beautiful properties that cost $20,000 more than you can confidently spend. If you both become enamored and talk each other into overspending, you become co-enablers in a sticky situation. Setting a spending cap and committing to honor that limit will be the first and most necessary step in this process.

After pouring over your financial situation, you might decide it’s not the right time to buy a house. Instead of spending money you don’t have, wait a year or so and save up. Marriages are always stronger when couples aren’t struggling to pay the bills every month.   

2. List Your Needs, Identify Your Wants

Everyone is entitled to their preferences. If you’ve survived the courting process and started a happy marriage, you probably understand the importance of being supportive of each other’s interests. When it comes time to put down $40,000 on a house, you actually need to avoid being overly supportive.

Let’s look at some amenities that could be considered needs:

  • Yard
  • Good school district
  • Garage/Professional studio
  • Quiet street

I respect that some people might not budge on certain items. School options are very important, a yard might be a necessity for a couple with a few big dogs, and your job might require a home office or workspace.

How about a few similar items that could potentially move to the wants list:

  • Two bathrooms
  • Two stories
  • Multi-car garage
  • Guest room
  • Basement or attic space

It’s possible you need some of these amenities. It’s equally likely you want a second floor so badly you’ve convinced yourself it’s something you can’t live without. How do you figure out which items are wants and which make the needs list? Lots of respectful discussion and a tidy spreadsheet.

Putting together a physical list with each of your preferences will help you organize things by importance. If a third bedroom tops the list for both the husband and wife, that can stay as a make-or-break factor. Conversely, if only one party leans toward three bedrooms and that puts most houses out of your price range, it might have to move to the want side of the list.

Once you have important amenities categorized as needs and wants, take some time away from your list and then revisit it. If you still feel like everything is in the right place and everyone is happy, you can start putting properties through the list test. Score different homes based on how many needs are met, then check off which ones account for more wants. As you compare properties and prices, this measuring stick will come in pretty handy.

Accepting certain things as wants will help you focus on the most essential aspects of your home. Agreeing with your spouse as to what constitutes a want versus a need will help you avoid some of the arguments that can make this process extra tedious.

3. Tackle Debt and Boost Credit Together

Buying a house is an ongoing responsibility. Between future payments, continuous upkeep and the prospect of selling at some point, owning a home can feel like a full-time job.

If you think about your house as a joint business venture, you’ll probably want to have an even distribution of this responsibility, and you’ll definitely want your and your spouse’s financial outlook to be as appealing to lenders and sellers as possible.

Many couples have one person who brings in the lion’s share of income, but that doesn’t mean the other’s money matters should be ignored. Even if you maintain separate bank accounts, each of you makes up half of the financial picture when buying the house. Unless one partner agrees to take on the entire purchasing burden, everyone needs to be ready to put their best foot forward.

In your haste to get an offer in, you might step into a mortgage with worse terms than you could get with just a little less debt and a slightly better credit score. While you certainly want to save as much as possible for your down payment, stepping up your efforts to pay down outstanding balances and improve that credit score could save you more money in the long run.

For many prospective homebuyers, saving money proves an easier task than paying down credit cards; it’s much more fun to save for something you’re going to buy than it is to pay back a lender for something you bought years ago. To put yourself in the best position, it’s a good idea to move debt repayment up a few spots on the priority list. It might be your husband’s debt that he racked up in college, but if this is the man you’re planning to buy a home with, everyone wins when you help him pay off those bills.

When you can consolidate and eliminate debt, you improve every aspect of your house hunt. From the amount you can afford to the terms of your mortgage and your prospects for preapproval, everything gets a boost. As long as you’re entering into this venture as a family unit with two incomes, you need to make sure everyone feels comfortable presenting their financial report to a lender.

Talking about money is hard; talking about debt is much, much harder. If you’ve been hiding a credit card or two in the shadows and hoping to pay it off by yourself, you need to come clean before the homebuying process gets underway. And if you’re on the other side of the equation, learning about your partner’s debt for the first time, you need to be supportive and do what you can to help make the situation better.

4. Talk Tactics

You have a couple options when you decide how to go about buying a house. You can set yourself up with a real estate agent who will handle a lot of the work but cost you some money, or you can do your best to go through personal connections and get a better deal on an unlisted property. There are pros and cons to each path, and all of the cons become much more noticeable if you and your spouse aren’t on the same page before you start looking at available properties.

The good news is you don’t have to commit to one route or the other before doing a little research. Sit down with a realtor, especially if you have a referral from a friend who had a good buying experience. If you’re going to enlist the help of an agent, you should feel confident that person has your best interests in mind and knows what he or she is doing.

When you try to handle things on your own, options become more limited and communication between husband and wife gets a lot more consequential. Saving $20,000 because your pal George is selling his parents’ place could be a financial win, but strong-arming your wife into buying a house she doesn’t like will quickly negate those savings.

Skipping the realtor can also bring additional headaches that have the potential to cost more money over time. You might end up paying an appraiser, an inspector and a real estate attorney more than you otherwise would if you have an agent with the backing of an established company. Buying a house is never as simple as signing a check; don’t try to game the system if you aren’t extremely familiar with all that goes into buying and selling real estate.

Your ability to buy without an agent depends heavily on where you live and who you know. Should you decide to take the lead on property hunting and supplying your own bids, you’ll probably still need to call in favors to make sure you have the right paperwork and are going through the right channels. I encourage any prospective homebuyer to do research before getting started; I encourage those of you looking to avoid realtor fees to research about ten times as much.

If your spouse feels more confident employing an agent and bringing a little expertise into the fold, I’d recommend you acquiesce. Putting too much on your plate while potentially being at odds with the person you’re trying to buy a house with adds a lot of stress. Plus, you put yourself in a serious bind if you refuse to ask for help and then end up overspending or buying a property with all sorts of problems that got missed during inspection.

You’ll probably be looking to save money wherever you can, and not paying a realtor has a lot of appeal for some people. Unfortunately, unless you have a really solid grasp of how these sales work, a buyer’s agent might be a necessity.   

5. Keep Your Eyes on the Real Prize

A new house is a wonderful thing. It’s an exciting and monumental experience when you sign the papers and get handed the keys. At the same time, this is a piece of property. It doesn’t hold a candle to the importance of your marriage.

The whole process of looking for and buying a house should bring you and your spouse closer together. You will learn about each other and face all sorts of challenges as a unified front. In the end, you’ll have your very own property, but the best part will be the journey you take together inside that home.

In order to keep your relationship and each other’s needs front and center, you have to approach this process responsibly; you can’t expect to go in with a cavalier attitude and come out on the other side with everything smelling like roses. Homebuying has lots of peaks and valleys and an infinite number of variables to contend with, and married couples need to check in with one another repeatedly to ensure things move ahead smoothly.

Again, buying the home is just one step in a long journey full of collaborating and decision making. After you move in, it’s time to discuss potential changes and figure out how to fix stuff that breaks. Then there are the kids’ rooms, the storage space, the new cabinet handles and a million other small and large issues to address.

There’s nothing quite like buying your first home. If you and your spouse follow these tips and prop each other up throughout the effort, it becomes even more special. Be discerning, be respectful, and enjoy this spectacular step in your lives together!

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