Early on in my real estate career, I noticed a recurring anthropological event among house hunting couples. They would come into my office and sit down to tell me about what they were looking for in their next home. In about 75 percent of cases where one of them had expressed an interest in a fixer-upper, as soon as the wanna-be-weekend-handyperson excused him or herself to go to the bathroom, their significant other would pull me aside. Then, eyes desperately darting around in a sort of optical Morse code, sweat beads dropping from their brow, they would initiate what I came to call “The Restroom Conversation,” which always went something like this:
“Please help me. I do not want a fixer. My husband/wife/significant other will never do the work. I don’t want to live in an expensive hovel. SOS!”
The life-changing impact and bank-depleting dollar amount of a home purchase transaction renders it fertile ground for relationship discord. That said, if both sides proceed consciously and with the intention of peaceful resolution, there are strategies that can help make sure the deal closes without destroying the relationship – and without one side being disgruntled that their needs are not being met.
Here are my five techniques for resolving differences of opinion with your loved one when you’re buying a home together:
1. Get everything out in the open. Surely by now you’ve heard the saying about what closed mouths don’t get: fed. You’d be surprised at how many ‘restroom conversations’ culminated in an open conversation in which the fixer-averse member of the couple confessed to their mate that they didn’t share their Bob Vila fantasies for the very first time!
In this way (and many other ways, for that matter), real estate matters can reflect the deeper dynamics of the relationship. People who hate confrontation in the rest of their relationship tend to avoid vocalizing their disagreement with their partner’s real estate opinions, too. This, in turn, can lead to one person owning and paying for a property they simply dislike, or otherwise failing to have their real estate needs met. Over years of home ownership, this can fester and snowball into a relationship-ruining avalanche of resentment and rage.
If you have a strong disagreement with some of your S.O.’s real estate priorities, make sure you voice them – respectfully, of course. (See #5, below.) Biting your tongue can be both painful and costly, in the context of a home buying transaction.
2. Prioritize your conflicting wants and needs. Couples with a strong track record of reaching compromises and problem resolution may do this naturally, while newlyweds and other couples who tend to lock horns more frequently will find this to be a new approach. I recommend that each individual buyer sit down and write out their Vision of Home – what they want their lives to look like on a daily basis once they’re in the home they’re about to buy. Who all will live with you? What do you do in your spare time – scrapbooking or yoga or yard work or loafing – and where in or around the house do you do it? Do you spend your weekends at the home improvement store or hosting brunches?
From there, each person should begin to drill down into how their vision translates into a property. This is the time to get into the nuts-and-bolts stuff: how many bedrooms and bathrooms do you want or need? Where will this home be located? Are you wanting a townhome with a zero-maintenance exterior or a sprawling rancher on a few acres?
Once each individual is clear on their wants and needs, the members of the home buying couple should meet up, sit down and review, surfacing where your wants and needs align seamlessly, and also surfacing any disconnects or diverging priorities.
Then, take some areas of disagreement and prioritize them:
- Is your desire for a townhouse a deal-breaker, or could you make do so long as the landscaping of a standalone home is low-maintenance or your spouse agrees to handle it?
- Is your mate’s dream of investing sweat equity into a major fixer a must-have, or are they open to seeing other options?
I find it helpful to categorize areas of disagreement in terms of must-haves, would-likes, dislikes and deal-killers. You might find that what seems like the makings of a major dispute ends up being resolved pretty easily once you get clear on how important each of the sticking points is (or isn’t, as the case may be).
3. Bring your agent into the mix. First, let me be clear: it is not an agent’s job to provide free therapy! I’m not suggesting that you look to your broker or agent to resolve your relationship differences (though many have extensive experience doing just that, in a home buying context). However, agents know more about the subject matter of your disagreement – homes – than either you or your mate, and an experienced agent might even have worked with other couples through the precise issue or stalemate you’re facing, in the past.
Letting your agent in on the disagreement and seeking their input can be a powerful step in the right direction of resolving an impasse:
- First off, your agent might know of properties or property types that can resolve your disagreement with little or no further negotiation. They might be able to instantly see some compromises or solutions that you would have no way to even think of!
- Second, your agent might immediately spot how one or both of your impasse-creating needs are infeasible in any event. For example, if you want water views and your spouse wants to live downtown, your agent might know for a fact that neither of these is feasible on your budget!
Agents are great at helping resolve differing house hunt wants and needs by reality-checking both partners with the truths of the market, including surfacing property-based solutions that hold the potential to make both sides happy.
4. View properties that meet either side’s wishes, as well as compromise homes. You’d be surprised how what we *think* we want in a home, in the abstract, changes up once we’re actually viewing real-life properties in the flesh (or, more accurately, in the brick, mortar and stucco). Buyers with a die-hard commitment to fixing up a property have been known to shift their stance when they actually see the fixers in their area (which may not be discounted as heavily as they expected), or when they see a beautiful, move-in ready property in their price range.
And the reverse is also true: I’ve seen numerous buyers who wanted to do little or no work to their next home become willing to take some work on upon viewing a cosmetically-challenged but otherwise perfect property in the perfect neighborhood – at the perfect price.
My advice to buyers who find themselves at a stalemate with their mate is to split your first couple of showings with an agent roughly equally between homes that:
(a) meet one or the other spouse’s deal-making or -breaking priorities
(b) reflect your best efforts to compromise with the other, and
(c) reflect your agent’s opinion of the sort of property that will support the most prominent features of the lifestyle(s) you each envisioned, whether or not it’s precisely what either of you has described.
This way, you have the best shot at allowing the reality of the homes on your market in your price range resolve the impasse for you, without further fuss or additional ado.
5. Don’t start or engage in power struggles. Wanna know what happens when people think their needs or concerns are being dismissed, disrespected or minimized? They get entrenched and oppositional, and power struggles ensue. In a power struggle, the facts of the situation – the substantive disconnect between two people’s home buying wish lists – becomes completely secondary to the so-called “principle of the thing.”
Once that happens, there’s almost no solution, no compromise, or give-and-take that will satisfy the person who feels their needs are being overlooked. They might agree, begrudgingly, to a property, but express their martyrdom and resentment for years to come. Or they might flat out dig in their heels, being passively or aggressively obstructive to the home buying process by not bringing in documents as needed, making a unilateral purchase on credit or otherwise sabotaging the deal, albeit unwittingly. This is not necessarily intentional game-playing, either; most people who are engaged in power struggles can’t see it while they’re in them. Only after cooling off, and only in retrospect, can they see the overarching relationship dynamics that got in the way of smart, proactive real estate decisions.
Accordingly, it’s essential that if you and your mate disagree on one or more major points of your house hunting criteria list, you each treat the other’s position respectfully. Exercise class active listening techniques, like repeating back in your own words what the other person is expressing, so that they see you are paying them the respect of listening, and asking questions to more fully understand why they have the priorities and concerns they do.
At all costs, avoid teasing or ridiculing your mate or their wish list, no matter how frivolous some items on it may seem to you. Instead, focus on the priorities that you do share, and engage in calm conversations devoted to determining what tradeoffs each of you is willing to make in order to achieve your common goal: a home that works for you both, for your family and for your finances, for the long haul.