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By Tara-Nicholle Nelson | Broker in San Francisco, CA

5 To Do’s When You and Your Mate Want Different Things in a Home

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.

All: What home buying differences have you experienced with your spouse or co-buyer?  How did you resolve them?
P.S. - You should follow Trulia and Tara on Facebook!      


By Helen Oliveri,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 09:53
Good home buying and relationship tips.
By Joanne Bernardini,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 10:48
This advice is right on! No one likes to feel they are not being "heard". It is a giant waste of the agents time in researching and showing properties that are guaranteed to be shot down by one of the partners in the search. I make my clients rate their "must haves" with a 1 to 5 rating. This helps me zero in on what they really want! Then we let the properties speak for themselves!
By Shanti,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 10:53
Great article~~!! Our realtor put a lot of stress on our relationship- he has gone the extra mile with my boyfriend absolutely and they are good friends but how come our San Francisco agent dismisses my personal concerns? I am in a couple (not married though) and he deals only with my boyfriend. I have addressed him about this as well. His excuse was confidentiality and told me to direct questions through my boyfriend so he didn't have to answer twice!!! LOL!! could you be believe it??? How lazy is that?? I have had to ask questions 3x's to get an answer or for ex- 3x's i asked to send SFR in our price range before I received listings.. of course i started working with someone else but we just so happened to now be in contract with the house he showed us. We are both investing in this property. Fascinating...the lack of work ethic , laziness or maybe it is sexism in a market that is really hot right now...He has been very available for my boyfriend though and all around is a nice guy, but is this what to expect in the profession? My boyfriend has had former investments but I am a first time home buyer...sorry if that is a little off topic..but the realtor's dismissing my inquiries definitely put stress on my relationship!!
By Adrian Harrell,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 11:18
@ Shanti - It is too bad the agent you are currently working with is unable or unwilling to address your concerns. Please do not let this cloud your judgement of the professionals that are working in the industry. For the most part, Realtors are professionals that work hard at gaining and keeping your business for now and well into the future. I am willing to bet that if you ever choose to sell this particular property in the future or choose to buy another one, this agent will not be your go to person. AND that is his loss not yours.
By Shanti,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 11:28
@Adrian- Thank you, I very much appreciate your response.. Yes, i won't let it color my opinion of other professionals, as we also had another agent for the North Bay area and I absolutely adored her. My only regret is we didn't give her the sale! She was very responsive to our concerns and had a wonderful code of professionalism. Thank you so much for your response.
By Joe & Lisa LaMastra,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 11:37
Really good article and great points. Having been a mediator for years before obtaining my real estate license, a great deal of what you addressed is how I'd approach it myself, especially having them make their list of wants and needs - or basically, goal setting. I had a couple in my office just thing morning who hadn't communicated fully with each other and after asking some pointed questions, the direction they decided to go in was different than what was thought when they initally came into meet with me. Hopefully, they now have a more focused idea of what is going to work for both of them. Thanks again for an excellent article.
By Ursula I Cullison, e-Pro,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 11:44
Excellent advice for home buyers that they should heed. Thanks for this article. In my 23 years in real estate, I had to play a mediator several times to get couples agree on a certain house. Just have patience and it will work.
By David Barr,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 11:58
So, what's happening in the real estate business these days? I'm sure there are some relevant topics to discuss in a blog.
By salbarzini,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 12:06
Attention all Men: Take from an experienced man, give the wife whatever she wants. Case Closed.
She will get the house anyway after she divorces you. Nothing you want in life will you get once married. And after the divorce and child support you'll be pumping gas forever.
The way women today throw themselves at men, men should just buy a house and each day invite a different women. You'll be better off.
By Shawn Hertzog,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 12:22
Thank you Tara & Trulia! Another great posting! Keep up the good work!
By Katchapman,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 12:30
Sorry you have had some bad experineces with women.
I've been married for over 37 years and I'm the one who says ," Yes Dear To Him All The Time."
By Ellen Derby,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 13:04
Wow! Lots of different relationship dynamics out there! Which I think is partly why Tara Wrote the article.

As for myself and my husband, we're really quite able to discuss thing openly. We're hoping to buy what would be our second home (after we sell the home we live in now!). 10 years ago we were buying a house and we had a nice list of what we were looking for in a house. He was less attached to the style of house, more attached to the practicality of it. W both wanted certain features in a house - for me the basement MUST have an exit to the outdoors- it was a deal breaker- so we crossed off all that did not have that feature. Ultimately we wanted much of the same things in a house, needed a large house, were willing to do some fixing up but no major repairs ( like changing walls). What happened was that we couldn't find what we wanted in the school district we were living in at a price we could afford ( if we could find it at all) so we started to look 1-2 towns further out than we were from the metro center near us. Neither of us wanted to live int he city- so going in was not an option. We found a great house and about the only feature it lacks that we wanted was a fireplace. OH well, we did just fine without it.

Now, in our searching we've hit some obstacles- mostly because our home is not selling- the market is very slow here. We're running into the time frame of a new school year. And the town we wanted to move to has very little available in the price range we can afford. Which has caused us to re evaluate what we want and need. My ability to see reality strikes home a good week or more before it hits him. This has been a very stressful period in our lives. But unless we talk openly the whole thing will blow up. It's always a bad idea to force someone into living with something they are not on board with.
By Tinathelen914,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 13:12
great article! Thanks for sharing!!!
By Floyd Dean,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 13:17
Take it from a couple married for 42 years, a relationship/partner, whether they be married, dating, committed relationship, significant other, etc. is about compromise and trust. (give and take equally) If you don't have that, you have nothing!!!
By arepha,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 13:18
A very good and practical article. Me and my husband are going through the same thing. He is a wanna-be weekend handyman and I know it is not going to happen. We can relate a lot to this article. If my realtor would say something like 'Joanne Bernardini' said in her comment on this article, I will run away. We are going to put our whole live's savings in to this deal and you are going to earn sweet money out of it and you are concerned about 'your' time. As if you are doing a favor to your clients by showing them houses. Seeing houses itself is a learning process about houses as well as about our own liking and disliking. No one knows what they exactly want before starting their house hunt. No client should allow a realtor make her feel that she is somehow 'wasting' their time. Or they are doing a favor to client by showing houses. Just needed to say it.

We also met a realtor who was a female but did not bother answering my questions. or worst, laughing on my questions before dismissing them. Needless to say she is fired. I believe it was sexism, she thought because we are south asian my husband will make the final decision. Guess who is not getting money out of your future transaction. Fire him as soon as you can.
By Shanti,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 16:52
@arepha-sorry to hear about your experience and thank you for your advice. I am not sure exactly what happened in my situation-but can only speculate. i have found the work ethic & professional boundaries in San Francisco is generally very different than where I was raised. How horrible to have questions laughed out. It is stressful enough to be in the process of buying with all of it's uncertainty, emotional roller coaster rides & subsequent impact on relationships and family. Good luck in your search and i am sure you will find a much better person to find you the home of your dreams :-)
By Bashar,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 17:30
Good article BUT all in theory. Reality is difference and most agents are in for the commission Trust nobody. Talk with spouse before seeing any house. List good and bad things. Take your time
By Darrell Bauguess,  Thu Jul 5 2012, 20:43
Financial evaluation, Buyer counseling, completed interview sheet, are all Agent listening functions based on target questioning...a confessional. Tends to weed out the issues which need to be addressed well in advance of "jumping into the car". Meeting with one without the other creates a one-sided relationship and a trap for the Agent. In this case the Agent loses control and is lead by the weakest link or the sqeakiest side of the relationship. If these steps are abbreaviated then you will have a problem. As professionals we are to blame for any relationship that goes sideways .
By Dorene,  Fri Jul 6 2012, 09:12
Thank you for sharing this article, I think it hit the nail right on the head. My husband and I are house hunting, we just paid off the one we are in. We are looking for a bigger house on at least one acre. I do all the hunting then on weekends we go look. So far my husband doesn't like any of them.
By CLAIRE WILLS ®,  Thu Jul 12 2012, 23:30
OMG! This is exactly what my boyfriend of 9 years and I are going through. I always have to take my realtor cap off and put on my girlfriend hat. Great insight!
By Megan Wedge,  Sun Aug 5 2012, 10:29
My husband and I are just starting to look at homes as first time home buyers. This article came at a very good time. So far we haven't seen any that are close to what we need. I think we need to have this conversation before we go any farther so we can stop any problems before they start!
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