Dear Wayne and Wanda,
I’m in an ongoing disagreement with my wife about where we live and I am seeking guidance.
We started dating in our 20s when we were both sharing apartments with roommates. I was the first to buy a place — a zero lot line townhouse, not in the best neighborhood, but not in the worst, either. I love the place. It’s near trails and has quite a bit of space considering our mortgage, which is just less than $1,000 a month.
When we got more serious, she moved in, and when I proposed and we got married, we kept making this our home. I’ve been at this place now for almost 10 years and love it. I’ve made great progress toward paying it off. But lately, she has been pressuring me to upgrade to a house in a “better” part of town. She said she wants four walls all her own, and maybe even a garage.
I think she is being delusional about how that upgrade would affect our bills and our disposable income. She says I am not “adulting” and we need to let go of our “starter house” and get something that we can live in for years to come. I have no problem with where we are at. How do we move past this impasse?
Our residential location is a huge predictor of our happiness. Do you value space, or proximity to the city center? Do you enjoy a long commute as a daily opportunity to reflect and process, or do you get frustrated by drives that take longer than 10 minutes? Do you like the city or nature? Is it more important to you that you have tons of space for craft rooms and spare bedrooms and man caves, or would you rather have a compact living area that helps curb the accumulation of possessions?
Those are philosophical questions. Layer on to that the practical ones: what is a reasonable budget in both the short- and long-term? How much of your income would you like to apply to a mortgage versus other bills and debt, or fun expenses like travel and new cars? How many bedrooms do you really need for the long-term expectations of your predicted family size?
I realize I’m asking a lot of questions and not giving answers, but that’s kind of the point here. Your dilemma with your wife isn’t so much a question of your starter-home townhouse versus her McMansion suburbia dreams, but an existential question of what kind of life you want to have, what kind of money and house you need to have it, and where this all meets in the middle. You will figure this out by talking to each other and sorting through your priorities and logistical boundaries and barriers.
Oh, imagine the family good times … You and your wife, the three kids, the dog and the cat, all happily crammed into that zero lot line home that you just couldn’t let go of. Floors covered in child and pet toys. That tiny, tiny yard with just enough room for your grill and two lawn chairs — sorry kids, play in the driveway. And only 11 years before that 30-year mortgage is paid off!
Look, I understand the lure of staying in a home that’s affordable, in a great location, and has a comfy, lived-in feel. And I’m guessing you’ve built up some equity and are seriously chipping away at that principal. Awesome. But the reality is, you and your wife have probably outgrown already your little townhouse. She certainly has. And if you haven’t yet, you certainly will when you do decide to get that dog or have a kid or two.
So, don’t mortgage your future with your wife; it’s time to get a new place. It doesn’t have to be crazy expensive. You won’t have to give up things you love. After you and your wife answer all of Wanda’s questions, you’ll be able to hone in on a price range, size, location and intangibles that will make everyone happy. Then start casually looking — go to open houses, talk to a real estate agent, download all the real estate apps. This will give you a real sense of what’s out there, what works for you two, and how competitive the market is. And when you see a gem, you’ll be ready to pounce.
In the meantime, consider taking advantage of these historically low rates and refinance your townhouse. You could instantly lower your monthly payment and super-size your future home’s down payment fund ... or shorten the mortgage years and make bigger payments to build even more equity, which will be clutch when you sell. If you lower your payments enough and find a new home, you could even rent your townhouse at a rate that has your tenant paying its mortgage and slicing a chunk off your new home’s mortgage, too. Suddenly affording a new home doesn’t seem so daunting.