The Home Buying Process, Part Two: Survival Tips for Buying a Home with Your Spouse

As you guys know, I recently put a house under contract with my husband — and although he’s fairly laid back, this process is never easy. As a Realtor, I watched a lot of couples nearly come to blows over garages, carpet and a myriad of other minutia and I wasn’t about to let that happen during our purchase. Buying a house with someone else is one of the most difficult things you can ever do — don’t let anybody lie to you. It’s not a breeze and it is always a learning experience, not always for the better.

But if you’re going to be a married couple (or even a deeply committed, but not legally hitched couple), it’s something you’ll do eventually. You’re going to need help navigating this process — so let me turn my mortgage and real estate into marriage-saving relationship advice, just this once.

There’s No I In We

We’ve seen what a beast the market can be — and how once purchased, a house can be as big a financial commitment as any child. Some houses need more care than others and you’ll dump a fortune into them. Others will be little slices of heaven and make you a bundle at the closing table — or allow you to retire early, in cases like ours. Every house is a legal and financial commitment, though, and one you’ll always share with your spouse — so listen up. Start with these tips before you ever see your first listing — they’ll help keep the two of you from killing each other:

Remember, you’re not buying alone, even if you’re the sole loan applicant. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT buy a house without your spouse unless you intend to live there alone. I don’t care if you’re in a community property state or an entireties state, your spouse will be as lashed to that house as you are — legally or otherwise. They’ll have to pay part of the mortgage, they’ll end up making repairs with you and they’ll have to live there.

Buying a house without your spouse is not a good way to surprise them, it’s not just the way it should be since you’re the only one on the mortgage — it’s simply insensitive and cruel. A home purchase is as much an emotional decision as it is a financial one, and if you’re cutting your spouse out of that, you might as well go ahead and get a divorce. It’s not your house — it’s our house. Period.

Make a budget. Start with your current rent or mortgage and really look hard at your finances. Can you continue to afford your current payment and do whatever it is that you want to do with your life? Is your payment easy to afford, but you’d like to have a family and need a bigger home? These are important questions you’ve got to ask yourself before you make a budget.

Your lender will give you an upper limit for your mortgage, but it won’t tell you what you can actually afford — just what they’re willing to lend. Figure out for yourself what sort of payment fits into your lifestyle before you set foot in your first for sale home and save a lot of disappointment down the road.

Use the tools at hand. In this day and age, it’s easier than ever to find the right house without a ton of legwork. Once you’ve got an idea what you can afford, go through the listings on or your local multi-list service — together — and try to find some sense of what appeals to you both. Maybe you love brick houses, but your wife is dying for a cute little bungalow in a historic district, luckily, there are plenty of brick bungalows that can keep you both on the same page.

Neighborhood matters a lot, too — and maybe even more than architecture to some people. If your dream is to move to the country and your husband will only look at houses with easy access to city conveniences, you’re going to have to make some sort of compromise. The same can be said of school districts if you’ve got children to consider.

Make some lists. After we had combed and limited our house “to see” list to 30 or so, my husband and I sat down and made three more lists. Each was made up of characteristics of homes: one was “must have,” another was “like to have” and the last was “cannot have.” It took a few days to make these lists — they were in flux for a little while, I won’t lie.

We started by both contributing things to the “must have” list — and in general, we were in agreement on things like hard surface floors, big fenced backyard for our dogs, access to cable internet, decently sized kitchen, a big room for our office, an open-ish floorplan and central heat and air. My husband insisted on a big garage or a carport for our car — which, frankly, I hadn’t even considered since we so rarely leave the house (this telecommuting life is glamorous).

Then came the “like to have” list — it was all over the place and included things like fireplaces, attic fans, an extra half bath, a swimming pool, a big deck… and on and on. We knew this was a list of wants and not a list of needs, so we didn’t pass up looking at a good house without these things. This is the “like to have” list, after all.

The “cannot have” list is one that may end up in blood, so place things in this category carefully — if your “must have” is your husband’s “cannot have,” you’ll have to sort it out and really explain your reasoning to each other. For us, this list was pretty short, but vital. Stairs was a big one, since I have some mobility issues — I can do flat, and I can do a couple of steps, but running up and down a staircase all day would be the death of me. I was very against having a shared driveway — I’ve rarely seen these end well. My husband’s “cannot haves” were pretty much all neighborhood-related.

When the Rubber Hits the Road

Once you’ve done your homework, you’ve made your lists and you’ve got your loan approval, you can start looking at houses in real life. But keep those tools you just developed handy, because this is where it’s going to get real tricky. As you look at homes, you’ll, possibly unconsciously, start making a mental inventory of the houses you’ve seen and categorizing them. Some will be ugly, but you can see their promise, others will be horrific rat traps you’d rather run from.

Unfortunately, what you think is a rat trap might be your spouse’s dream home. So tread lightly. Maybe they believe having a project will help bring the two of you together, or maybe they just want a chance to work with their hands after a long day staring at a computer. Don’t ever condemn your spouse’s list — but do compare lists often so you can start to calibrate your own idea of shared perfection.

Once you do that something wonderful will happen — you’ll find a house you both know is the one.

In our case, my husband wanted a fair amount of square footage — a lot more than I thought we needed. I was encouraging him to look at smaller homes so we could find something in better shape — but he wouldn’t budge. Finally, we came across this little orange house that didn’t look like much on the outside.

Curb appeal was high on my list of wants, but this little house was a real sleeper. It’s not hideous, it’s just not exciting. No stone or brick or interesting architecture. To be honest, I suggested it because it was close to one of my husband’s friends’ home and I thought it would be neat to be nearby. Even if the house was orange. It was vacant and we wouldn’t put anybody out by popping in — so we did.

This house was not on my list at first — not by a mile. It was a “just in case” filler so we didn’t waste our time with our Realtor. Let me stress that. But we walked in and there it was: hardwood floors, attic fan, big kitchen, archways, built-in cabinetry, tile, utility room, nice carport big office space, big yard, big trees — and everything kind of centering on the kitchen. It was a project, it clearly needed a lot of work — but it was liveable and a full 15 percent under our self-imposed mortgage cap.

We had done our homework, we had done the exercises I explained above, and when we walked in this house (even though it didn’t have a fireplace) we knew this was the one. We both knew it and we knew it fairly quickly. My one and only reservation was the electrical system, which was powered by several service panels — but the money we saved on this house would pay for an electrician on the day of closing.

Of course, that was the easy part. The hard part comes after you make an offer. Then you’ll have to fight over repairs, and which things you’re willing to fix. If you can start the process with good communication and a house you both love, though, the rest will fall into place.

The Bottom Line: Communication and Compromise are Key

Things went well for us, but I’ve seen plenty of couples torn apart by this particular decision. Don’t buy the wrong house because it’s the one your spouse wants — keep looking. If they’re hung on one place and can’t explain why, it might not be the right time for you to buy. Communication is vital, and if that’s lacking, well, you don’t need a real estate or relationship expert to see that things are headed for a brick wall.

Buy a house because it’s the right house for your whole family. Don’t buy a house because you’re in love, when your spouse isn’t. Looking at houses is like dating — you can fall in and out of love many times before you find the right one. Just like you didn’t marry the first person who came along, you shouldn’t buy the first house that fills your stomach with butterflies. Use your head as much as your heart to ensure that you find a home that everybody can live with for a lifetime.

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