Q: My husband is dead set on buying a fixer-upper for our first house — he thinks he’s going to somehow become handy once we buy a house, even though he’s never actually done a home improvement project. I want a place that just needs paint and carpet, because I don’t think he’ll finish the projects he starts and I don’t want to live in chaos in our new home. Do you have any advice for us?
A: You have no idea how frequently home-buying couples clash over differing wants and needs — situations just like yours have inspired me to develop something I call "the restroom conversation." When I first meet with a couple, we sit down and they both explain what they’re looking for. Then, when one goes to the restroom, I press the other one to tell me what they really want, or to give me their deep-down reaction to the other’s desire for a fixer, a houseboat, a geodesic dome or other unusual request.
Buying a house impacts relationships similarly to having a baby — the process can bring you closer together or push you further apart. Whether you experience the process as bonding or bondage depends in large part on what you learn about each other and your various visions of the future, and how well you are able to close the gaps — the differences — between your visions.
You probably started the home-buying process knowing that you would have to negotiate, but assuming that the sellers would be the folks on the other side of the table. The real negotiation, in your situation, may in fact be across the table from your own husband! If you approach the resolution of your differences as an opportunity for a win-win negotiation, you can remove some of the negative emotions surrounding the issue, and approach the matter systematically — that way, you are both more likely to get more of what you want and to avoid falling in hate in the process. Your Realtor may be able to coach you, as a couple, on the need for you both to compromise on some things — even buyers of multimillion-dollar homes often do not get every single thing they want. However, you and your husband can both have your biggest want — a home! — if you are both willing to give a little.
By the way, there’s nothing that says you can’t have fun in this process of compromising. Rent films that show comedic marital discord over home improvements gone wild, like "The Money Pit" and Cary Grant’s "Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House." And, to be fair, also sit together and watch, well, uh, I don’t actually know of any films that show quick, cheap and fabulous home improvement projects, but you could certainly watch some HGTV together!
Remember when you and your husband decided to buy in the first place? You both wanted the same thing — a home of your own. The great news is that you still do both want essentially the same thing. Your first order of business is to keep that in mind.
You don’t mention whether you have already started viewing prospective homes. If you haven’t, get out there! In my experience, the issue of whether or not they want a fixer is the second most frequent item about which home buyers change their mind (their maximum price being number one). Ask your Realtor to show you a set of homes in your desired neighborhoods and price range that lie in a fairly wide range on the continuum of repair. Ideally, work with a Realtor who has some experience with remodeling homes and/or connections in the construction trades, so they can help manage your expectations about costs and the renovation process in real time while you are in the various properties. (Remember, though, that it is ultimately your responsibility to get contractors’ bids on any projects you decide to take on — and I would advise you to do that during inspections, while you can still back out and get your deposit money back if the bids are horrifyingly high.)
Taking such a tour will help you both move from your abstract concepts of what a fixer is and isn’t, and get very concrete about (a) how much (or little) you stand to save — or how much more "house" you can afford if you purchase a fixer, (b) how many years of weekends devoted to fixing it will it take to shape the place up, (c) what the experience of living in a fixer-in-progress might truly be like, and (d) by contrast, what a move-in-ready home looks like, feels like and costs.
The average couple I take on such an exploratory tour leaves with the recognition that in our area, the price differential between fixers and move-in-ready homes is not usually enough to pay for the repairs the fixer will need, and is very rarely enough to make up for the trials and travails of living in a fixer for years on end. Your area might be different, but usually, when the party who is a fixer fan walks into an affordable property in move-in condition that really suits their tastes, those visions of power tools dance right on out of their heads. The occasional exceptions tend to be people who work in the construction trades and are confident they can finish the job, and those who have ample cash to pay a professional to handle the repairs before they move in.
Taking a tour like this will flesh out whether your husband is committed to fixing for the sake of fixing or is just looking for a good value on a great home. Another valid reason he may invoke is the desire to have a highly customized home — one tailored just for his unique wants and needs. If he goes there, point out that the better condition the property is up front, the more cash you’ll have on hand to add that home theater or greenhouse.
In all fairness, it is possible that you might see some moderate or cosmetic fixers that have compensating factors, like your ideal lot size or neighborhood, which you might not otherwise be able to afford. Yep — I said it, you might just change your mind, too!
If you and your husband still cannot resolve this issue after a tour or two of properties in various levels of (dis)repair, you might need to sit down and just haggle. Each make a list of wants and needs, and prioritize the list. Then sit down together and negotiate which of your "must-haves" can be downgraded to a "like" so that one of your "dislikes" can become a "deal-breaker," and vice versa, working your way through both of your lists until you get a single, cohesive list of prioritized features and amenities that you both can live with. This will equip your Realtor to show you homes likely to make you both truly happy.
1. Decide to have fun with the problem resolution process. Be respectful of each other’s wishes and approach it as a bonding experience.
2. Take an exploratory tour of both true fixers, cosmetic fixers and move-in-ready homes with a Realtor who understands the renovation process and local construction costs. See if one of you moves to the other side of the issue.
3. If your fixer-friendliness levels still clash, make individual, prioritized wants-and-needs lists, then sit down and negotiate a compromise list. Make sure you each get to keep some of your must-haves, so no one feels like the loser.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook," and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.
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