First comes love ... then comes a house ... then comes marriage. Getting hitched may not be the ultimate sign of commitment these days as more and more couples opt to buy a house together before walking down the aisle, new research shows. Nearly 1 in 4 married couples ages 18 to 34 purchased a home together before getting married, according to a recent Coldwell Banker Real Estate survey released this week. That compares to just 14 percent of married couples ages 45 and older.
That's a reflection of millennials' shifting attitudes toward commitment, said psychotherapist Dr. Robi Ludwig. "People are very commitment oriented, but millennials are much more pragmatic," she told AOL Real Estate. "I think millennials are saying that if we want to have the life we want, we need to make smart decisions early on. ... The home becomes the new engagement ring -- and in some ways, the new wedding."
It's not that these young couples are less committed by putting the purchase of a house before a wedding. According to the Coldwell Banker survey, 80 percent of all married couples who bought a home together at any stage of their relationship said that purchase strengthened their bond more than any other purchase they've made. (The survey of 2,116 adults was conducted March 8-12, reported USA Today.)
For Zina Miranda and her fiance, Steve Roman, both 24 (and both pictured at left), buying a house was the next logical step after getting engaged. They're not due to marry until May 2014, but this June will mark their five-year anniversary, and they were just ready to take the real estate plunge. The couple recently bought a house in Patchogue, N.Y.
"We got engaged, and I was like, 'OK, let's start looking [for a house]," Miranda told AOL Real Estate. "It was just a really good opportunity to buy a house. We had been saving a long time."
Does she think that buying a home proves their commitment to each other even more than getting married? "On some level, yes," Miranda said. The couple's venture into homeownership is doubly important to them: It's the first time they've lived together. "This is the house I could live in through the rest of my life," she added.
While that might be a beautiful thing for young couples in love, the legal ramifications of buying before marriage could be a little uglier. John Braun, a real estate attorney at Thomas Law Group in Minneapolis, said that he has one word of advice for couples buying a home before marriage: Don't.
If you buy a home before marriage, Braun explained, you basically sign a contract that gives you both equal ownership of the house, but not joint ownership (at least until marriage). In the event one of the partners dies, their share of the house goes to their heirs, not the other partner. And if you never make it to the altar and break up, well, "you are left owning a piece of property with someone who is wishing that you would die," Braun joked.
"When I am not scaring people away from [buying a house before marriage] altogether, I usually recommend that they have an agreement that governs their ownership interests whatever happens," he said. "This kind of contract sets forth the contributions made by each party, establishes a right of either party to demand that the property be sold and makes a bunch of other decisions by agreement in advance that are impossible to make by agreement when the parties hate each other. This is an area where an hour or two with an attorney can really pay off in the long run; untangling these interests down the road is a time-consuming -- and expensive -- undertaking."
See more on young homebuyers:
Millennials Forge Fresh Trends in Homebuying
What Homebuyers Want the Most in Their New Houses
Should Young People Buy Homes? Weighing the Pros and Cons
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