Wedding season is behind us, with newly married couples across the Washington area vowing to stick together through thick and thin. But when it comes to buying, renovating or decorating a house, many couples young and old have more conflict than common ground, more antagonism than amour.
Disagreements crop up when people have different goals and expectations. For example, when viewing a home for sale, women tend to care most about the kitchen and bathrooms whereas men are more concerned about the distance from work and how much maintenance the yard requires. Finding a house that satisfies both sets of concerns can be tough, said Sheila Wayman of Weichert Realtors in Annandale.
Even partners who consider themselves to be model couples, such as newlyweds Aaron and Lisa Daniels, can disagree. During their housing search last year in Fairfax County, Aaron put a high priority on finding an older home with a three-car garage while Lisa wanted a newer home with a nice garden.
"There were houses I walked into and liked which she said she didn't care for," said Aaron, who in the end decided to sell his Reston property and move into Lisa's house in Clifton.
Renovation can also spark disputes. Interior designer Skip Sroka, a principal at Bethesda-based Sroka Design Inc., said couples often clash when one partner is focused on getting the project done while the other enjoys the process and makes decisions slowly.
Contrasting taste is a major source of conflict. For Bethesda residents Jill and Alan Tanenbaum, who have been married 25 years, the garden became a source of contention in the late 1990s when they hired a firm to do major landscaping. Jill wanted a variety of colorful flowers, while Alan wanted only evergreens because he had an intense fear of bees, dating from childhood.
Some disagreements stem from each partner's upbringing, said Robert Cole, an architect at Cole Prevost Inc., a District-based design firm. Alan Tanenbaum did not grow up in a house where there was a lot of renovation work, whereas Jill did. "We constantly had people ringing our doorbell asking if they could see what we did to our Long Island house," she said.
So during the first few of the couple's eight renovations to their contemporary house, Alan wasn't interested in getting too involved or in taking time to hunt for flooring or appliances, Jill said. Some disagreements ensued when Jill made choices that Alan didn't like.
Cultural backgrounds also play into the mix. For example, British people "absolutely want the toilet in a separate room from the sink," whereas Americans typically don't, Cole said. Sentimentality can be a factor, too, as when the wife wants to keep what the husband considers an ugly chair or couch, said Sophie Prevost, an interior designer in the same firm as her husband, Cole.
And of course, different styles of spending or investing money can cause battles, ranging from how much to offer for the house, and what type of carpet, doorknobs and drapes to buy, to whether to hire a lawn service, said Ellen Purcell, administrative director of the PAIRS Foundation, a Reston-based nonprofit organization that offers classes on how to have successful relationships.
For the Tanenbaums, the money issue surfaced about five years ago when Jill wanted to enlarge their bedroom by merging it with another of the two bedrooms on the house's upper level. She felt "squished" in the existing bedroom, she said. Alan believed reducing the number of bedrooms would decrease the value of their house. (They expanded the bedroom.)
Last year, when Jill wanted to renovate the living room and hire a professional designer to help, Alan resisted because a professional would be expensive and he thought Jill could design it herself. (They hired a decorator.)
Even when couples agree on specifics such as the price, color and decor of a home, fights may break out due to the stress and time-consuming nature of the buying and renovation processes. Just ask Lois Lerner and Michael Miles, a Bethesda couple who are both lawyers.
When they bought the property on which they eventually built their home in the late 1990s, they ran into opposition from some neighbors who opposed their tearing down the existing house. A fire broke out at the site as the new home was going up. One of them needed to rush over to the site from work each day to check on the progress of the house.
Moreover, there were "a million choices to make," such as whether to have city water or well water, what stain should go on the wood floors and which appliances should go in the kitchen, Lerner said.
"The process was very stressful even when we weren't disagreeing," she recalled.
For those who are trying to buy homes, the hot state of the Washington area real estate market does little to keep the peace, said Nathan Booth, a real estate agent in the Falls Church office of Executive International Realty.
Because for-sale homes routinely attract competitive bids, the process can drag on, and that can make shoppers irritable.
Some couples play a blame game when they don't win the bidding war, throwing out accusations, such as, "We could have gotten it if you . . .' said Booth, who is the current president of the Virginia Association of Realtors. The friction can be especially severe among couples who are first-time buyers "who don't realize the complexity of the process," he said.
Moving out of a home temporarily or permanently is another stress inducer, Purcell said. "If living space is being invaded and the nest is being ruffled, couples who might normally be able to have a civil conversation now may burst into tears or start slamming doors," she said.
But however numerous or intense the disagreements, they are unlikely to lead to divorce, said Bernard Guerney, a marriage and family therapist and founder of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement in Bethesda. These issues "do not have as much emotional meaning as an affair or years of growing apart," he said.
On a list of issues that possibly cause marital disharmony, Guerney ranked home buying and renovation higher than planning vacations or choosing a pet, but lower than job changes and decisions regarding how many children to have. He said home-oriented conflicts can be prevented or resolved when couples have good communication skills and mutual respect.
Jill Tanenbaum shares that view. She respected her husband's fear of bees and went along with his desire for a flower-free back yard. Now she enjoys the green look.
And although he didn't initially want the large master bedroom or the professionally designed living room, Jill said he loves the results of both.
She said, "We're both thrilled with every single thing that we've done."