The real estate market is rallying - easing the way for sellers in an increasing number of neighborhoods. In most areas, homebuyers still retain bargaining muscle. Yet for many couples, one big catch remains: They have a terrible time agreeing on what they truly want in a property.
"It's extremely unusual for both people in a couple to agree on all the elements of the home purchase. This discord can lead to a huge level of friction," said Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and author of "Let's Get Real About Money!"
"Although money disputes can arise over any financial matter, such as the right car to buy or where to vacation," Tyson said, it's especially likely they'll surface over a home purchase.
"Choosing which house to buy is a tremendously high-stakes decision," he said. "And people don't always realize how many strong feelings are packed into that choice." Given all the emotion, Tyson said, it's understandable that husband and wife are often at odds on where to live and what abode to buy.
"Sometimes, one partner dominates the decision-making and the other one simply surrenders. But this is dangerous because it can create lasting resentment within the couple," he said.
To avert an unhappy outcome, Tyson recommends that couples take the time to talk out their individual hopes and ideals before committing to a particular neighborhood or property. Here are a few pointers:
•Communicate your views on money early in your relationship.
Some couples approach marriage with more of a focus on their wedding than on deep-seated attitudes about money and other values.
"People shy away from money discussions before marriage. They fear that talking about money will seem unromantic," Tyson said.
However, money issues - including attitudes about the right home to buy - are so central to a couple's plans that refusing to address them early "can lead to fireworks for the marriage later," Tyson said.
Before they can reach a solid decision on which home to buy, a couple needs to unearth their primary beliefs about money, said Tyson, whose book includes paper-and-pencil exercises to help people discover unspoken values about financial matters.
"Try to pull away from your hectic life - if only for a couple of hours - to discuss what's really important to each of you before you go out looking for housing," Tyson said.
•First seek agreement on a neighborhood, then on a specific home.
Agreeing on broad money decisions is a good prelude for more focused conversations on real estate. For example, early on you should decide if you want to max out on your mortgage eligibility. After that, it's time to zero in on a community you like, said Leo Berard, charter president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents.
He advocates for couples to take a systematic approach to neighborhood selection, with both partners first itemizing their individual priorities before then compiling a unified list.
Once you've selected a neighborhood, the next step is to choose an architectural style and floor plans that work for both of you.
•Use "I don't like" lists to discover your personal preferences.
During his more than two decades running an independent realty firm, Berard developed several strategies to help homebuyers figure out what type of property to buy. His favorite tool: "I Don't Like" lists.
The idea is for both partners to create separate lists of home features they dislike in their present residence - whether that current home is a rented apartment or a detached house. For example, maybe the husband loathes their tiny kitchen, which makes it tough to host dinner parties. And perhaps the wife is unhappy that their kids lack a playroom with ample space for toys.
Once you have your individual "I don't like" lists written out, simply reverse the elements on each list to discover those features that are genuinely important to each of you.
"It's amazing how really helpful these lists of dislikes can be when you're trying to determine what you really want. They can also help to highlight disparities between husband and wife," Berard said.
•Consider asking your agent to help you reconcile differences.
Although real estate agents aren't trained as psychologists, Tyson said, they can often be helpful to couples who find themselves at odds over the type of property to buy.
"It's not always possible to bridge wide discrepancies. But an experienced agent - who's long used mediation skills to assist other clients - should be willing to give it a try," Tyson said.
•Leave your kids out of the decision-making process.
Suppose you and your partner are struggling to find common ground between his preference to buy a one-level house with a small terrace and your desire for a large colonial with a spacious yard where your kids and dogs could romp.
Because you're a family, you may wish to bring the children along on house-hunting expeditions. Indeed, you might even imagine your kids could help you reconcile your differences and therefore make a sound decision.
But Tyson said kids are rarely helpful and that more often their involvement in the decision-making process will result in confusion rather than resolution.
Should you decide to bring your children along, Tyson said, you should make sure you let them know that Mom and Dad will be the ones making the ultimate decision on what to buy.
"Teenagers can be especially opinionated on what they like in a house. Go ahead and let them weigh in on your decision. But giving them a vote or veto will only complicate matters," Tyson said.
Ellen James Martin, a former real estate editor at The Baltimore Sun, gives advice for anyone buying, selling or financing a home.