Getting married and buying a home are two traditional milestones that many adults experience -- but today, there are no rules about what you should be doing when. Whether you buy a house together before or after the wedding, there are advantages (and disadvantages) to either path, so your ideal order of operations is going to depend heavily on your own personal situation.
What do you need to consider before you make a decision about whether to buy first and marry later, or marry first and buy afterward? Here are a few of the factors that should influence your decision.
Timing: Wedding or house first?
A wedding is usually an expensive event that takes a lot of planning, and likewise, buying a house is typically even more expensive than a lavish wedding and also requires a lot of thinking and planning ahead. If money isn't an issue for you or your spouse, then maybe timing doesn't matter much in terms of which comes first, but if you're going to be digging deep into your savings to pay for the wedding, or putting a lot of the wedding expenses on credit, that could present a problem when it comes time to buy a house.
Mortgage lenders want to see how much money you have saved and use your credit score to determine what mortgage interest rate they'll offer you. So if they see that a once-robust savings account has been methodically depleted (and not replenished), or that you've spent a lot of money on credit that you haven't made a dent in paying back yet, then you won't get as good of a deal on your mortgage loan.
If you can avoid funding a wedding and buying a home back-to-back, then that's probably your best bet. Whether that means buying first and saving for the wedding later, or getting married and renting until you're financially stable enough to get the best deal, is up to you -- and your spouse-to-be, of course!
Your spouse's credit score
When a lender considers your mortgage loan application, if you're not yet married, then your spouse's credit score won't be factored into the loan. But if you are married, then even if your spouse won't be a borrower on the mortgage loan, the lender will still take his or her credit score into account when determining your rate and loan limit.
Of course, if you're going to buy the house jointly as a couple, then both of your credit scores will be considered when the lender makes the assessment of your loan. But if you've already decided for some reason that only one of your names should be listed as the owner of the home on the title, and the spouse who won't be listed has poor or no credit, then you might want to consider buying before you get married instead of after.
The down payment is a hefty homebuying expense -- to avoid private mortgage insurance, you'll have to put 20% or more of the total sales price down upfront, and that's usually a sizable amount of money in most of the country. Depending on your financial situation, this might be relatively easy to swing after a wedding, or you might need to wait while you replenish your savings account.
On the other hand, if you know you're going to get some cash gifts from your relatives to celebrate your wedding, then maybe the down payment will be easier than ever to manage after the marriage is official. And you might still qualify for a mortgage loan even without the 20% down payment; you'll just have to pay mortgage insurance and possibly a higher mortgage interest rate. Nobody can predict whether mortgage rates will rise or fall in the near future, but if they happen to fall after you've been paying your mortgage for six months or more, then you can potentially refinance and use some of your earned equity toward the down payment, winding up with a lower monthly payment down the road than what you'll be paying immediately.
Whatever the case with your savings situation, make sure you understand what's going on and have a plan before you decide to put the chicken or the egg -- marriage or a house -- first.
Student loans rear their heads
Yes, student loans are going to be considered when you're applying for a mortgage loan, and depending on the type of loan you're seeking and whether or not your spouse is going to be applying with you, student loans will likely be factored into the mortgage loan application -- for both of you. If one partner has an advanced degree and the other has no student loans, this might be something to consider when you're talking about buying and trying to figure out who will own what (and who will pay for what).
What's the state have to say?
States have different laws about who owns what when it comes to marriage, so look into your own state's laws before you make any decision about what to buy when. For example, some states are community property states, which means that most property that's acquired when a couple is married belongs to both of them communally -- and will need to be divided equitably if a split is in the future. It's a good idea to talk to a lawyer before you decide for sure what to do in terms of marriage and homebuying or vice versa, and you'll probably want to get your eventual agreement in writing, anyway (more on that later).
Think about worst-case scenarios
Nobody wants to think about breaking up before you're even married, but if you can't have a serious conversation now about how you'd divide up your assets if the worst were to happen, then that's a good indication that maybe you aren't as ready to get married as you think you might be. Things happen in life that we don't necessarily welcome, including death and divorce, and the adult thing to do is talk about them before they take you by surprise.
This doesn't mean you need to draw up and sign a prenuptial agreement, of course, but if one of you is putting more money down on the home upfront, or will be tackling a majority of the mortgage payment, then maybe it makes sense to determine how much equity that person will own in the event that you have to sell the house and part ways. Or you can decide to split everything as close to 50/50 as you possibly can, with the caveat that if one of you loses a job or goes back to school or experiences an illness, the other one will pick up the slack.
Are you both happy with the home?
Have you ever experienced that phenomenon where you meet someone new as a couple, and you like this new person much more than your spouse does, or the other way around. This can (and does) happen with homes, too, where one partner falls head over heels for the space while the other can definitely take it or leave it.
Beyond determining the location and the basic features of the home, like number of bedrooms and bathrooms, whether it has a home office, and whether you can both live with a galley kitchen (just to name a few), it's also smart to have a wider conversation about taste. Does one of you love Victorian homes and the other loathe them? Is one of you a modernist aficionado while the other really prefers a different look?
Have a conversation about what you like in a home, both generally speaking and very specifically, so that when one of you starts to swoon over hardwood floors and the other is leaning toward carpet, you know where you might need to compromise and are willing to have a discussion about what stays, what goes, and whether a potential place is even livable.
You can arrange your home's title based on your living situation -- perhaps only one of you will be buying the home and paying the mortgage, and in that case, a sole ownership title is probably the option you'd choose. But you can also make other arrangements, such as a joint tenant title, where you both will be living in the home but one partner has more ownership than another, such as a 60/40 or 70/30 breakdown in ownership. Another possibility is to arrange your title as a joint tenant with right of survivorship, which means you can't will your home's equity to a child, a parent, a sibling, or someone else in the event of your death; it will automatically transfer to your partner.
Maintenance and upgrades
It's possible that the best arrangement for you is to set up an agreement where one of you primarily pays for the mortgage while the other is entirely responsible for any maintenance and upgrades -- every relationship and financial situation is different, after all. Even if you don't plan on making maintenance and upgrades an all-or-nothing scenario, talk to your beloved about what you might want to do to the house over the years and what might be necessary to do (you don't always have a choice about replacing your roof or the boiler, for example), and see if you can come to an agreement about how you'll handle the maintenance and the upgrades when they inevitably come up in your lives as a homeowner.
Adult kids in the mix
Not every marriage is a first marriage, and many marriages involve blended families where adult children are somewhere in the picture, even if they won't be living with you. Some parents tie a great deal of their net worth or wealth into their real estate, and if this describes you and you want to make sure that your adult children receive part, most, or all of your assets when you die, then this is something you'll need to hash out before you buy property with a spouse.
You don't necessarily need to talk to your adult kids about your plans (especially before you've made them), and you certainly don't need their approval, but if they exist and you'd like to ensure they get an amount of your estate that seems fair, then think about what that means for your real estate decisions -- and clear it with a lawyer first.
Making it legal
A prenuptial or postnuptial agreement isn't crucial even when you buy property together, but depending on the decisions you've made, you'll want to ensure that they're appropriately documented and recorded just in case one of those unfortunate scenarios you've considered comes to pass. A lawyer can help you get everything down in writing, such as in the form of a will, and a title expert can also ensure that you've got all your i's dotted and t's crossed when it comes to legalizing your decision.
Deciding whether to buy a house before or after your wedding isn't always a very romantic or sexy conversation -- it involves a lot of financial disclosure, some tough decisions, and maybe discovering that your spouse likes a type of architecture that you find truly distasteful. But covering your bases this way can help you make an informed choice about when to buy and how to go about it, and you'll be glad for the peace of mind when all is said and done.