Why Am I So Freaked Out About Buying a Home With the Man I Love?

A couple walk toward a house.
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Dear Penny,

My boyfriend and I have been living together in an apartment for over two years. While I don't mind renting for the time being, he's been on the lookout to buy a house. Well, he found one in an up-and-coming neighborhood that's right in our budget. Everything looks good on paper and we can afford the mortgage payment, but I'm torn on two things:

  1. Even though the house seems like a good investment, I don't know if I'm ready to put down roots and make that large of a financial commitment yet. (Rising interest rates and a dash of anxiety from the last housing crisis aren't helping.)
  2. We're not married. Even though we're in a committed relationship, I'd want to make sure we protect ourselves financially.

How can I get over my homebuying fears? And what should we do to protect ourselves in case we split up while owning the house?


Fear of Missing Out (on Equity)

Dear FOMO(E),

One of the awesome things about living in the present day is that you don’t have to do life in order anymore. You don’t need to get married before you buy a home before you have 2.5 kids and a dog. If you’re a family, in any sense of the word, you are free to progress according to your liking.

But while emotionally it’s all warm fuzzies, beyond that it’s more complex. I called in two experts to assist me in advising on your situation: a real estate agent and a couples counselor.

Chicago-based real estate agent Kim Howard said now’s a good time to think about who will actually own the house if you choose to buy. If one person technically owns the house, the other person in the couple can pay rent to the owner. If you decide to part ways, it can be a relatively clean break as far as the house is concerned.

But if you take this route, you probably want to consider writing and signing an agreement about how house finances will be handled — and what will happen in the event of a split.

Meanwhile, “if both partners want to invest in a home, and want to equally benefit in profits if a sale is anticipated down the line, they can both be added to the title and even on a mortgage together,” Howard explained by email.

She also recommended that long-term partners consider having wills, and updating them if you buy a house under one person’s name. No one wants to think about the worst-case scenario, but you’ll want to have clear instructions about who would take over the house in the event of the title-holder’s death.

So that’s your head stuff. What about your heart?

Couples counselor Raffi Bilek of the Baltimore Therapy Center recommends examining your emotional state of mind before moving forward in your house hunt.

“If you are remaining unmarried on principle but plan to spend the rest of your lives together, you are probably good to go ahead,” he said by email.

“However, if you aren’t married yet because you ‘aren’t ready,’ then you probably aren’t ready to buy a house together either.” He stressed that a joint home purchase requires a full commitment from both halves of the couple.

“If you are still not 100% sure that you intend to be together for the long term, it’s probably not the right time yet to buy a house together,” he warned.

This is about the two of you. Remember that. It’s not about anyone else.

Forget about all the people who tried to flip homes in 2007 and lost their life savings. The investors are in their own category. As for the people living in their homes who lost them to foreclosure? For so many, there was another factor in the mix, like a job loss or medical bills. If your emergency fund is shored up, you’ll be less likely to suffer if the housing market drops dramatically again.

Don’t fret over interest rates. Today’s interest rates are between 4% and 5%. A decade ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see interest rates in the 6%, 7% or 8% range — and they got higher from there if the mortgage rate was adjustable. Even today’s adjustable-rate mortgages are less volatile than those of a decade ago.

Beyond interest rates, I’d consider the hidden costs of owning a home. You’re ready for the mortgage payments, but are you ready for the property taxes? What about the maintenance costs — and the actual maintenance?

As for putting down roots, that’s a question only you can answer. Are you confident you’ll want to stay in that house — and its accompanying town, county and state — for at least five years? It takes time to build equity in a house, so you’ve got to think of it as a long-term investment to recoup the upfront costs.  

When you’re browsing around open houses, don’t just dream of paint colors and backyard gardens. Ask yourself whether you can picture living there together (and loving it) five or 10 years from now.

The inbox is open. Submit a question or send your worries to [email protected], and I’ll see what I can do to help.

Disclaimer: Chosen questions and featured answers will appear in The Penny Hoarder’s “Dear Penny” column. I won’t be able to answer every single letter (I can only type so fast!). We reserve the right to edit and publish your questions. Don’t worry — your identity will remain anonymous. I don’t have a psychology, accounting, finance or legal degree, so my advice is for general informational purposes only. I do, however, promise to give you honest advice based on my own insights and real-life experiences.

Lisa Rowan is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.