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Remarrying couples often have housing decisions to make

May 16, 2009

It wasn't love at first sight when Dorcas Helfant met Landon Browning after the two connected through Match.com, the online dating site. At first, Landon seemed "too country" for her (though she soon discovered his penchant for the urbane, including Brooks Brothers suits). And he found it tough to understand Dorcas' love for cats.

But Helfant, a realty company co-owner, and Browning, founder of an employee benefits firm, soon married in a small, elegant ceremony. They were both long-divorced empty nesters, thrilled to wed again.

The union was not without complications, however. Each owned a house, and it was a struggle to decide which property to sell, recalls Helfant, a former president of the National Association of Realtors (www.realtor.org).

"Lots of empty nesters like us face a quandary when they remarry," she says. "Many would like to hang onto both houses. But that's just not practical."

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Deciding which house to sell was especially complicated for Helfanta and Browning because neither of their properties seemed big enough.

"He owned an 1,800-square-foot town house filled with fabulous Mission-style antiques and his huge wardrobe," recalls Helfant. "My traditional house was somewhat more spacious - with 2,600 square feet. But we still felt crowded there."

It took a number of long talks before the couple shaped their final housing plans. Ultimately, they chose to sell Browning's town house and expand Helfant's traditional home, enlarging it to accommodate both their desires.

These days, more baby boomers are choosing to remarry and, therefore, face housing challenges. One factor leading to more late-life weddings is the surge in online dating, which has made it easier for people to connect and form lasting relationships, says Dr. Diana Kirschner, a psychologist and author of "Love in 90 Days: The Essential Guide to Finding Your Own True Love."

According to an Internet research company that tracks Web traffic, comScore Inc., the use of leading dating sites has grown steadily and was 5 percent higher in January 2009 than the prior year, says Andrew Lipsman, a company spokesman.

Of course, many older daters are divorced people with homes of their own. The older the partners, the more entrenched they're likely to be in their homes, which makes it tougher to merge their households, says Kirschner.

"That's because it represents your identity and history," she says.

Here are a few pointers for newly married couples trying to solve a housing puzzle:

o Take your time in deciding how to proceed.

If you're not facing a financial imperative, Helfant urges you to slow down the decision-making process, even if that means retaining two houses for a period after your marriage.

o Realize your space needs as a couple.

By the time many older couples remarry, they have accumulated so many belongings that they need the larger of their two homes to keep all or most of them.

"For us, closet space was a big issue," Helfant says, recalling the couple's reasoning for expanding her house.

The expansion has also allowed the couple to do the kind of entertaining they envisioned when they were first engaged, given their array of grown children and grandchildren. With four bedrooms and as many bathrooms, they can now host overnight visitors as often as they'd like.

o Consider selling both homes and buying a third.

As Helfant says, the right housing choice for an older remarrying couple could be to sell both their properties and purchase a third place.

"Moving into a fresh home, where neither of you had lived with former spouses, could feel right to both of you," she explains. "This could be a new beginning you would both enjoy."

In the current buyer's market, many couples are reluctant to put one home on the market, let alone two. But Helfant encourages those considering a trade-up purchase to examine the numbers closely.

o Put your relationship ahead of your housing plans.

As a newly married couple, your housing aspirations could be larger than your budget. Perhaps your income has been cut due to the recession, or you still have offspring to put through college. If so, you might even need to trade down, selling both your properties and moving to a less costly place. Perhaps to downsize, you'll need to sell some furniture and other belongings, or give them to Goodwill.

But whatever your plans or requirements, Helfant urges you to put your relationship ahead of any housing plans.

To contact Ellen James Martin, e-mail her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.

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