One perfect day last summer, my husband and I and our four-year-old daughter picked berries in a sun-dappled meadow, swam in the cool of a winding mountain creek and shared a picnic lunch on a hillside overlooking the 100-year-old farmhoue we own with another family on 10 acres in rural Rappahannock County, Va.
My husband painted the porch steps and took a scythe to the overgrowth in back of the house and I cleaned the mold off the refrigerator and the mouse droppings out of a bureau drawer.
At cocktail hour, our farm partners arrived with their two-year-old son and lots of cold beer. We ended the day by sharing a meal that included garden vegetables and a conversation that included our children, our work and our resisident whippoorwill.
We and our friends, another married couple also in their 30s, are living out a dream that we began to share more than six years ago. By pooling our money, our house repair know-how, our energy and -- most of all -- our commitment, we were able to finance and renovate a country getaway.
All four of us had lived and worked in Washington for years. We loved the city, but also loved to get away to the country on weekends.
We began talking about how nice it would be to fix up an old house together in a pastoral spot. We agreed that the property should be small, perhaps 10 to 20 acres, and no more than two hours from Washington. It shouldn't be too much of a wreck and it couldn't be too expensive.
When we located several possibilities, reality finally began to surface. Should we split everything equally? How would we decide about major purchases?
How would we work out who would come when? We knew some families who had purchased a farm in Vermont. Some had bought for an investment and never visited the place; others went every summer and every ski season.
Some of the Vermont property owners wanted renovations, others didn't.Getting everyone together to make even simple decisions was difficult. The house was eventually sold.
We decided to try to work out some of our problems in advance, before they became emotional issues. We used the driving time on our farm-hunting forays to come to some agreement.
One decision was that, if one couple wanted out, the other would have two months to decide whether to buy the other interest -- and an additional four months to do so or to find another partner. After six months, the property would go on the market.
In October 1975, when we finally found the house and land, a place between Sperryville and Culpeper, we bought it for $30,000 -- as equal partners. Each couple paid $3,000 toward the downpayment, and we continue to split the monthly mortgage payment of $236.
The owner took back the financing, which is common in small farm sales of this sort, but we were told that local financial institutions would have considered our application.
We were soon to discover that equality at all times has its drawbacks.
The house had no plumbing. It really needed major investments in a bathroom and kitchen. We made a precedent-setting decision: Our partners paid about two-thirds of the $4,000 plumbing bill and carried our debt to them on the books, at 5 percent interest.
We did the same thing with a $350 wood-burning stove and $500 in chimney repairs.
The total yearly cost to each couple -- including $50 in taxes, $20 a month for utilities, $200 for insurance and $500 a year for major repairs or improvements -- now comes to about $1,900. We have a tax deduction of $700 to $800 for interest on the mortgage.
A key part of our agreement was that at least three of the four partners must agree on major purchases, which we defined as either an improvement that increased the value of the house -- such as new plumbing -- or a furnishing that cost more than $100.
Recently my husband and I decided we could not pay now for half of a riding lawn mower, nor did we want to incur the debt at this time. Our partners gave us what they considered to be a bargain because of our decision.
They could have purchased the mower on their own if they had wanted, according to our agreement. This applied to my husband recently, when he bought some used leather furniture, thinking it would work well at the farm. No one else was too keen on leather furniture among the worn velvet pieces, so we have the sofa in our garage and the chairs in our living room in Washington.
A quartet of country neighbors also own their land and house in partnership, but with slightly different arrangements. They divided the mortgage payment by four, and each partner pays an additional $50 for supplies and equipment.
The 50 goes into a general fund for purchases that are voted upon in this manner: All four must agree to pay repair or improvement over $400; two persons must agree to spend more then $200. The rules are waived in cases of emergency.
The foursome sealed these and other questions in a notarized agreement before settlement. The basic points were borrowed from a contract one partner had already made with other friends for a jointly owned sailboat.
At the farm, we made a casual attempt at keeping things even. Our partners volunteered to keep the books and pay all utility bills, which are forwarded to them. We pay the homeowners' insurance and taxes. All the accounts are reconciled twice a year, at the "farm meetings" where we air any grievances.
We made our rule on furniture purchases the day the farm's previous owner auctioned off the contents of the house.
Standing in the crowd, we agreed to share the cost of some old machinery, and oil tank, a metal bedstead, a table and some chairs.One partner paid for a trunk and a rocker she wanted for herself. The rule was born: Purchases of furniture to be used in common rooms can be discussed in advance and made in common, or a partner can contribute a piece of his or her own to a common room. Everyone furnishes their own bedroom.
Our elaborate rules for use of the house turned out to be largely irrelevant. We rarely use the house two weekends in a row. Except for the winter, someone is at the farm every second or third weekend.
But more often than not, all six of us go together. Sometimes we invite mutual friends or visiting family members. After four years, we have discovered that sharing tasks as well as costs is essential to the health of our partnership and the property.
Washing down 25 years of kitchen grit, for instance, is not an activity to be taken on lightly, and certainly not alone. We are fortunate to have partners who, through two other house renovations, have gained knowledge that is critical to our property's upkeep.
As we see our children enjoying the country in the summer and looking forward to it more each year, the farm has become for us a place with roots. We find ourselves coming out to touch home base.
This is even more true now that each of us has moved to a new home in our city. We use the farm to rekindle our friendship, and we hope our children will too, once they get over their near-sibling rivalry.
One more thing has brought a measure of pleasure: The agent who sold us the property recently told us the place had doubled in value since we bought it four years ago.