Caveat Co-Owner

(Illustration By Randy Mays For The Washington Post)

By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 24, 2006

Architecture school pals Dave Delcher and David Tracz bought a District fixer-upper in 2000 as a way to get a toehold in the housing market. Since then, the friends have rehabbed the vintage Victorian and married their girlfriends, but they all still live and own together.

The percentage of people who, like Delcher and Tracz, buy homes with someone other than a spouse is small. Real estate agents and lawyers say, however, that the number has ticked up noticeably in hard-to-afford areas such as Washington.

Such arrangements are often the choice among unmarried couples, gay or straight, and they can allow friends or relatives a chance to buy a home they couldn't afford otherwise. Real estate lawyers, though, say they continually hear horror stories about deals going bad. They say the potential for disaster underscores the need for buyers to understand the various ways of holding ownership and to have agreements spelling out details.

Delcher and Tracz didn't have a written agreement, but they say everything has worked out fine. Still, the two men and their wives -- Delcher married architect Roxanne Wallace in 2003, and Tracz and interior designer Kim Sullivan tied the knot last fall -- are finally considering what they jokingly call "the divorce," meaning the sale of the property.

It's not because the five-bedroom house in Bloomingdale, which has tripled in value, feels cramped. It's because the couples, all in their thirties, are considering the next step: parenthood.

"It's been kind of fun . . . to be able to have friends living in the same house. It will actually be a little sad when we leave," Delcher said.

Laurie Ann Rose, who lives on 12 acres in Fauquier County, can't say the same. She says she "couldn't believe it" three years ago when her ex-partner asked a court to force the sale of the house she had bought in 1986 and to make her give up half the proceeds. "It was a nightmare," Rose said.

After three rounds of litigation to block the sale of her house and $200,000 in legal fees, Rose says she has learned how important paperwork can be if you share a house with someone to whom you're not married.

"The moral of the story is, 'Get it in writing,' " said the 49-year-old mother of three. "Don't do anything for love. . . . If someone truly loves you, they're going to sign on the dotted line" about how to split the costs as well as share the profits.

Delcher and Tracz don't disagree about the wisdom of putting pen to paper. It's just that they never got around to it. "We're pretty good friends, pretty even-tempered, and we knew we were not going to stab the other in the back," Delcher said.

There are no hard numbers on how many unmarried people have bought together in the Washington area. Nationally last year, 61 percent of buyers were married couples and 30 percent were single; that leaves 9 percent who were either unmarried couples or in some other situation, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Lawyer David S. Jenks of Avenue Settlement Corp. in the District said: "A third of the transactions that we do are unmarried people, people thinking that they're buying their first condo with their dream lover and that everything will be great. But usually it is a disaster." He estimates that as many as 15 percent of buyers in the District are not married, including "a lot of brothers and sisters who own together."

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