After I divorced in 2000, I bought a house of my own. It was my sanctuary, a little three-bedroom place the same age I was. I knew it was meant to be mine from the moment I walked into the open house and saw faded wallpaper with blue carnations and purple roses in one of the bedrooms. The exact same paper had been on my bedroom walls in the home where I’d grown up, even though this was California and that was Massachusetts.
“Tell the other people to go,” I said to the real estate agent. “This is my house.”
It was the cheapest one in the neighborhood, because it hadn’t been updated in 40 years. The backyard needed drainage work and landscaping, the countertops in the kitchen didn’t match, and the oak boards of the living room floor were blackened and cupped in several places. But the roof was solid, the school districts were good, and I could just afford it.
My family rallied behind me: My mother, brother, sister and aunt helped me make the $120,000 down payment because they wanted me to have a house in which to raise my son and daughter. But from there on out, I was going to do this on my own.
I was used to supporting myself. Even when I was married, my husband and I kept our finances separate, splitting only rent and groceries. The rest of my paycheck was mine—I thought—so I bought my clothes at Goodwill and contributed the maximum to my retirement savings account, only to discover when we divorced that according to the state of California, it was technically “our” retirement account. I hadn’t fully understood that when a marriage ends, the laws of the state trump any private agreements you may have lived by.
The only way I could bear asset division was to treat it as a onetime rip-off-the-Band-Aid process. I proposed we split what was in both our names but keep our separate accounts. I also offered to waive my right to alimony as long as he did the same. My lawyer sent me a document stating that I was acting against her advice. I signed it. I just wanted his hands out of my pockets.
After a year in my sanctuary, I recovered enough of my joie de vivre to look for love again. I started dating and eventually met Dan, and when he moved in another year later, we wrote up a month-to-month renter’s agreement and negotiated a fee that factored in his share of the groceries and utilities.
Still, I didn’t ever want to feel that I had to stay in a relationship for financial reasons, so each month I paid the full amount of my mortgage from my own income and deposited his checks in my SEP IRA and savings accounts.
But one Saturday morning, after about eight months, as we were eating pumpernickel toast and drinking coffee in my dark corridor of a kitchen, Dan said, “I’d really like us to remodel the house. I’m here for the long haul—you know that—and it would make a big difference to my enjoyment in living here.”
“I can’t afford it,” I said reflexively, though I, too, had dreamed of expanding my kitchen, replacing the cramped stall of the master bathroom with a larger, glass-enclosed shower and adding a small home office to free up a bedroom so my kids could have separate rooms.
“I know. But I probably could.”
Silence. Though we’d each logged more than 10 years of marriage to other people, we’d never figured out how to talk about money within a relationship. My ex-husband and I had not been able to adapt our no-sharing financial model to the arrival of children, and we divorced shortly after our son turned three.
Dan and his ex-wife had followed the all-in-one-pot model. But she didn’t work once their daughter was born. After they divorced, he shouldered a generous alimony payment, child support and the credit card debt. She bought a house; he rented a room and drove an old pickup truck.
But that was them, and this was us. We had to chart our own path, yet as soon as spreadsheets came out, I felt squeezed into their little cells and somehow wronged.
“Let’s not talk numbers yet. Let’s start with feelings,” I suggested.
“All right,” he said. “What feelings?”
“I don’t want either of us to feel that I’m taking advantage of your money or that I have some kind of obligation to you,” I said. “I’m terrified of being put in a position where I’d have to sell the house if we broke up. You’ll have to be able to move out if the relationship isn’t working for either one of us.”
“Sounds reasonable,” he said.
Instead of facing off across a negotiating table, we sat side by side with a picture of what we were aiming for—working on the puzzle together, picking up one idea and trying it out, searching for another piece that would fit better—until we’d devised an arrangement that met all our criteria. Dan took out a loan for the remodel. We had a real estate agent assess the before-and-after value of the house, and we agreed Dan owned the percentage of value added—23 percent, to be precise. If we separated, we’d work out a repayment plan that fluctuated with my income. If I sold, he’d receive his share at the time of sale. If I died, he’d get that value through my will.
“I had no idea a money conversation could go like that,” said Dan. Me neither. Just between us, we documented our agreement, signed it, and then—like all the best contracts—it languished in a file, unnecessary.
Until interest rates dropped last year and I started thinking aloud about refinancing. After several days of helping me run calculations and providing advice, Dan asked a question I hadn’t considered: “How much of the house do you feel I should own at this point?”
It was a Saturday, nine-plus years after we’d met. We were sipping lattes and eating in the sunshine coming through the skylights we’d added to the kitchen.
I felt a little shudder at the words at this point.
“Feelings first,” I said, buying time.
“I feel we’ve contributed equally to the value of the house on a day-to-day basis over the years. But legally it’s not ours—it’s just yours,” Dan said.
It was mine. I remembered the rainy day I’d first seen it and the Thanksgiving weekend I’d had the movers bring in the cardboard boxes and cheap furniture from the apartment I’d once shared with my husband. But that was a darker, emptier and lonelier house than the place we lived in now. The remodel had brought light into the kitchen, making it the heart of the house. The garage had filled up with Dan’s workbench and the tools he’d bought over the years: a snake to clear my daughter’s long hair from the drains, a tiller to create the vegetable beds I’d always wanted and even a circular saw he used to help my son build extra-credit projects for physics class. Together, Dan and I had chosen the paint colors on the walls and the plants in the garden. We both knew the full history of every ding in the doorframes and stain on the carpets, and we cheered ourselves with plans to fix them all when the kids left us to enjoy the house in peace. We’d discussed how it would be a good house to live in when we retired.
I paused, trying to resolve two conflicting facts: (1) that my house had to be completely mine and (2) that it was—in all the ways that mattered—already ours.
“I have to be fair to you,” I said. “But I feel scared.”
“I know,” he said. And after almost 10 years, he does.
“What about you?” I asked. “Aren’t you anxious at all?”
“Not at all,” he said. “This is the first time I can truly share a house. It’s a wonderful thing.”
And it was. Even through my fear I could see that. We then started talking about numbers: how much money I’d put in up front, how much he’d added with the remodel, what he’d paid in rent each month, the value of the home repairs he’d done.
“Let’s call it half,” I said at last. Financially, it was close to the truth. Emotionally, it was the whole truth.
“Deal,” he said.
The hardest part was the moment when I had to sign a document stating that I, an unmarried woman, was giving Dan half the value of the house I’d always called my own and that I was doing so “for no consideration,” meaning I had received and would receive nothing in return. I had to pause for a moment and remind myself that no matter what the document said, it wasn’t like the time I wrapped myself in a white satin gown and pearls and gave myself away for nothing but love. I wasn’t signing my financial independence over to any man—or to the state of California either.
We now own the house together, I tell friends. Most of them thought we already did, just as some of them assume we’re already married.
What we have now isn’t the complete independence I thought I needed, the dependence he feared or the marriage certificate others expect. It’s trust—or, to be more precise, a trust: 15 pages of stipulations and lengthy clauses, all vetted for clarity and comprehensiveness by a lawyer. Building it took many weekend and evening conversations with a yellow tablet resting on the coffee table as we talked about our desire to cherish and shelter each other. We ventured far beyond upbeat generalities, into the ugly possibilities of failing health, financial reversals and even selfish heirs. What seems fair? we kept asking. If one of us dies, what’s the right thing to do for your kids, and mine, and what if that conflicts with the needs of the survivor? How can I dedicate my share of the value of this house to safeguard your independence, even after I have died?
A wedding would certainly be more festive than the weeks we spent fitting this emotional and financial hair ball into linear, unambiguous sentences. But if we married, by the time we sliced the cake we would have signed over to the divorce or probate courts decision-making power over everything not explicitly covered by a prenup or legal trust.
Marriage is a blanket agreement: It’s comforting because it covers everything without your having to get specific about what everything might mean. But for me, our willingness to go deep into the details, even the sad or distressing ones, is complete proof of our commitment to sharing a house, and our lives, with each other—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, as long as we both, or either one of us, shall live.
Anne-Christine Strugnell is a freelance writer living in California.
Next: Love on the Half Shell
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