“House for Spouse” Does Not Belong on Your Holiday Surprise Gift List

valentines houseWhen I sold my first home, one of the offers came from a couple who, according to their Realtor, had been house-hunting for years without agreeing on a place they both liked.

At last, they found our house! Alas, they didn’t bid high enough. I sometimes wonder whether they’re still out there, searching . . . and arguing.

Ask any real estate agent: It can be hard, if not downright breakup-provoking, for couples to agree on their priorities regarding the various features that make up a house — its location, layout, design, number of bedrooms (at which questions like, “Should we have children?” and “Must we make room for your parents?!” tend to move to the forefront of the discussion), the amount of garden area, and so on.

Is that why some people simply go out and buy a house for their fiance, partner, or spouse without asking first? Yes, it really happens, according to Candace Taylor’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “What Happens When Your Husband Buys a House Without Telling You.”

Dumb idea, if you ask me. Well, okay, some of the wives in question were happy at being handed the keys to an actual house — or at least they say they were happy — but others broke down in tears. The bad kind of tears.

Buying a house is one of the most personal decisions one can make. It defines how you’re going to live for the next several years, and becomes as much a part of your identity as the clothes you wear. Besides, shopping for a house can be fun! Why leave one partner out of the process in the name of a surprise?

The WSJ article does have one excellent suggestion (in addition to “stick with jewelry”) for anyone  who still thinks buying a home as a surprise gift is a good idea: Don’t actually close on the deal before announcing the gift.

Legally speaking, how can that be arranged? It depends on the procedures in your state. In New York, for instance, there’s a gap between the time when the seller expresses acceptance of  the buyer’s offer and when the two actually sign the purchase contract binding both to close the deal.

In other states (such as California), the seller’s “acceptance” may actually create a binding contract. But there are ways to get out a a home purchase contract before the closing. In fact, a savvy buyer could write a contingency into the contract conditioning the closing on the spouse’s approval. I’ve never seen it done, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been, or can’t be done.

More traditionally, the contingencies that virtually every home purchase contract contains create escape hatches. (See Nolo’s article, “Contingencies to Include in Your House Purchase Contract.”)

The inspection contingency, in particular, which conditions the closing on the buyer’s satisfaction with the results of a home inspector’s report, offers an especially easy way to back out of a deal (unless the house is physically perfect). Most every house has some defects. You might simply announce in a huff, “Look at all those defects! I’m dissatisfied!” and walk away.

Walk directly to the jewelry store. If you made this big a purchase and your partner or spouse was unhappy with it, a several-carat apology may be in order. Unless, of course, your spouse takes the same approach as the one described in one of the comments to the article, who subsequently went out  and bought not one, but four homes. Surprise!