“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.