Buying a Weekend House With Friends: Is It Really a Good Idea?
Amanda Hembree casually raised the topic over martinis 11 years ago.
“What about buying a weekend house together?” she asked Marla D’Urso, a close friend.
The two women, who lived in Manhattan, had traveled together frequently and very amiably, and were always looking for places to go on weekends. It was 2008, the stock market had recently crashed, with home prices tanking in tandem, so there were bargains to be had. And at the time, neither woman was in a relationship.
“So we thought, ‘What are we waiting for? We don’t need to have our own families to do this,’” said Ms. D’Urso, who is now 50 and the real estate manager for a family business.
For the last decade, she and Ms. Hembree, 52, a speech language pathologist, have jointly owned a Cape Cod-style house on six acres in West Stockbridge, Mass., for which they paid $380,000.
Ms. D’Urso oversees matters pertaining to décor; Ms. Hembree handles administrative details. They each make monthly contributions of $700 to a Berkshires bank account to cover maintenance costs, and sometimes there are special assessments to, say, repair a leak in the roof or buy a new water pump.
An Octoberfest, spearheaded by Ms. D’Urso, draws weekend guests to come choose pumpkins. Ms. Hembree’s July 6 birthday is part of the Fourth of July celebration at the house. What they grandly and waggishly refer to as the homeowners’ association annual meeting convenes in the spring; it basically involves cleaning out the garage. Boyfriends have come and gone, and Ms. D’Urso got married last year, but no one has come between the women and their home away from home.
“When we were looking, my mother said, ‘You’re crazy. You don’t go into business with a friend; you’ll end up fighting,’” Ms. D’Urso recalled. “And she was so wrong. It’s been pretty smooth sailing.”
So much so that Ms. D’Urso’s brother Gary was inspired to team up with his wife, Marina Brolin, and their friend Julia Jones to buy property in Cold Spring, N.Y.
There is an understandable appeal to buying a weekend or vacation house with friends (or family members). On a practical level, co-owning may be the only feasible path to ownership. And even those who theoretically could go it alone may quickly discover that two checkbooks are better than one. More buying power means more square footage, more acreage and more amenities (a pool! a tennis court! a hot tub!).
The arrangement is also a great way to reduce shame and anxiety when owners decide they would rather hunker down for the weekend at their primary residence instead of loading up the car and fighting traffic.
“We know people who buy a weekend home and feel guilty over the fact that they don’t use it enough,” said Mr. D’Urso, 57, who is in the real estate business. “It makes more sense when you only have a share of the house.”
And how nice to have someone who will shoulder half the costs of pool cleaning, grass-cutting and snow removal, share the hosting responsibilities at the annual Labor Day barbecue and take on the job of telling off difficult neighbors.
“It’s a ‘Golden Girls’ phenomenon,” said Jessica Lautz, the vice president of demographics and behavioral insights at the National Association of Realtors, a trade group. “Marriage rates in the U.S. have dropped drastically, but people still want homeownership, be it primary or vacation houses. However, affordability is out of reach for many individual Americans, so partnering up with a friend becomes an ideal solution.”
Well, not always ideal. And not always a solution.
“Homeownership is so emotional, and it’s not easy even when you’re sharing the house with your romantic partner,” said Diane Saatchi, an associate broker at Saunders & Associates, a real estate agency in the Hamptons.
“I suspect that some friends who buy together think it’s a good idea because they really like the idea of having someone at the house for company or they think they won’t be at the house much, so it won’t be a problem,” continued Ms. Saatchi, who worked with two women in their 40s who were buying a weekend home in Montauk, N.Y.
“They were both strong and opinionated and sort of cranky, and neither had lived with anyone for a long time,” she said. “They didn’t agree on paint colors for the house. They didn’t agree about whether they should rent the house out to help cover their costs. They knew they had to have a pool for resale purposes, but they couldn’t agree on what kind to have and where to put it. I could see it was going to go sideways very quickly.”
Five years on, the two women have finally agreed on one thing: selling the house. “But they can’t agree on a price,” Ms. Saatchi said.
“When friends buy together, it’s a risky thing,” said Edward Burke, a lawyer in Southampton Village. “They come to my office, they’re excited and they have stars in their eyes: They’re going to be partners!”
Mr. Burke usually offers a reality check: “We always tell them to have an exit strategy in case things don’t work out.” (More about this in a minute.)
For eight years, Ben Dixon owned a house in upstate New York with his boyfriend and a friend. The end of Mr. Dixon’s relationship also meant the end of the shared house. Even so, the arrangement was so successful that he was eager for a reprise.
Two years ago, Mr. Dixon, now 41, a certified public accountant and associate real estate broker for Douglas Elliman, joined forces with his friend Shane Hogan, an insurance broker, to buy a four-bedroom Cape Cod-style house in Sag Harbor, N.Y. They paid $950,000 for the property, which included a pool, and spent $150,000 on renovations.
“There’s something comforting about having a co-owner,” Mr. Dixon said. “If I could afford exactly what I wanted and a manager to manage it all, I would do it on my own. But there’s something nice about making the decisions with a friend.”
So far, he and Mr. Hogan have disagreed only about renting the property to help offset operating costs. “I tend to want to use the house more,” Mr. Dixon said. “Shane wants to rent it out for more income.” Their 10-page operating agreement comes in handy at times like this.
Such a document, referred to by some co-owners as a prenup, spells out the terms of engagement. For example: how bills are to be paid, how often friends are permitted to visit, how frequently one owner can have time at the house without the other owner. (“We can ask for 14 days up here alone, but none of those days can be on a holiday,” Ms. Hembree said.) And of course, there are the what-ifs: what if one party marries, has children, moves, has a reversal of fortune or just wants out.
But not every possible sticking point can be dealt with on paper and notarized. Some co-owners rely on their long friendship to come more casually to an amicable accord. When, for example, the three owners of the Cold Spring house are contemplating a furniture purchase, “our approach is that two of us have to agree and the third one can’t vehemently disagree, or we don’t buy it,” Ms. Jones said.
A decade ago, when David Waymire, Roger Martin and the men’s wives bought a condo at Boyne Mountain, a ski area in northern Michigan, scheduling was a problem. “But now we have a rhythm where there is a sit-down early in the year, when we work out the weekends we each want to be there,” said Mr. Waymire, who owns a public relations firm in Lansing, Mich., with Mr. Martin. “We’ve been close friends for 30 years, so we know how to deal with conflict.”
And they know how to deal with code. “There are some weekends that we’ll be there together,” Mr. Waymire said. “But sometimes Roger will mention something about a family weekend, and I know he means, ‘You can come if you want, but I’d rather you didn’t.’”
There was no operating agreement, no document of any kind when, in 1997, Beth Carter and her then-husband bought a weekend home with Ms. Carter’s parents almost 90 minutes from their primary residence in Fairfield, Conn.
The family had long owned a vacation getaway in Groton Long Point, Conn. But as Ms. Carter and her brother grew up, married and had children of their own, that house couldn’t handle the population explosion.
Nearby, there was a property on the market that Ms. Carter’s mother had always coveted. It had five bedrooms and another room for any overnight spillover, and was near the water. “My parents couldn’t afford the house if we didn’t share in the expense, and initially I thought it would be wonderful,” said Ms. Carter, 56, an executive recruiter and professional coach. “The grandkids could all be together.”
But her parents quickly began issuing diktats about schedules and everything else, she said: “They acted as if it were their house.”
Ms. Carter’s mother wanted to name the house Fulfilled Dream. Ms. Carter wanted to call it something that can’t be printed in a family newspaper.
There were arguments about chopping down a tree, about the acquisition of a sofa, about the advisability of getting a television, about window washing, about cigarette smoke wafting in from the porch. Particularly aggravating, Ms. Carter recalled, were the naps her mother took without fail every afternoon from 1:00 to 3:00, forcing the other residents into silence and pantomime. “It was a nightmare,” Ms. Carter said.
When, after four years of co-ownership, flood insurance rates skyrocketed, both parties agreed to sell, “and we did make money,” said Ms. Carter, who used part of the proceeds to buy her own small weekend home.
There is a lot to be said for doing some version of a trial run. Mr. Hogan and Mr. Dixon, for example, rented a house together first. For four years before the Cold Spring purchase, Mr. D’Urso and Ms. Brolin shared ownership of an old Porsche 911 with Ms. Jones and her boyfriend.
“It worked out perfectly,” Mr. D’Urso said. “That, in concert with how well things had gone with my sister buying with her friend, made us think, ‘Why not look for a house together?’” They settled on a Sears catalog home from 1923: A selling point was the absence of a master bedroom — one less thing to adjudicate.
The three partners thought they would alternate use of the house as they had done with the car, “but it didn’t shape up as we thought,” Mr. D’Urso said. “What we discovered is that we really liked the idea of spending time at the house together.”
And, added Ms. Jones, who works in the media business, it was an automatic play date for her daughter, Sophie, and Mr. D’Urso and Ms. Brolin’s son, Ryan.
Dennis Paget was hoping for just such togetherness when he and his wife, Nancy Pelz-Paget, joined forces with several friends 14 years ago to buy a seven-bedroom villa in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
“Initially, there was a real esprit de corps, and a lot of us came at the same time,” said Mr. Paget, the founder of Language American Style, a company in Redding, Conn., that teaches business English and culture to foreign executives.
To encourage continued team spirit, a stretch in February was marked on the calendar as partners’ week, a time to gather at the property and frolic together. “But it never happened,” Mr. Paget said. “People had other vacation homes, and life just got in the way. It was a disappointment then, and it still is.”
Of course, many co-owners look forward to as much “me time” as possible.
“Ben and I are very close, but there is a lot of stress,” Mr. Hogan said of his Sag Harbor housemate, Mr. Dixon. “I could lose my best friend over too much together time. He’s not my boyfriend or my life partner. He wants to have kids one day, and I think it’s wonderful, but do I want to have screaming kids around?”
It helps that they are both “very reasonable” people, Mr. Hogan added: “Nothing has come up yet that has been a problem. You just have to make sure you’re buying with the right person.”
Ms. D’Urso was sure when she bought. She’s still sure. But her husband has been making noises about buying a place at the beach.
“I tell him, ‘We can’t have two houses,’” she said. “‘And we’re certainly not getting rid of the Berkshires house.’”
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Published at Fri, 26 Jul 2019 17:41:33 +0000