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What's the bigger commitment: Marriage or Mortgage?

By Julie Tramonte

February 2020

At a recent gathering, a young couple asked for everyone's attention because they had an announcement to make: They were ready to take their relationship to the next level and go for the big "M."

I thought they were talking about marriage. They meant "mortgage."

Making a big commitment

I shouldn't have been surprised. According to the National Survey of Family Growth, almost 25% of millennial couples buy homes together before getting married, and a Time Magazine survey reported 37% think they should buy a house together before getting married.

This got me thinking, which is the bigger commitment? The more I pondered, the more I realized the two have much in common.

Both usually start by falling in love

Your eyes meet across a crowded room. Or, you and your partner take a wrong turn while driving and come across "the cutest little house" with a For Sale sign. The rest is often history. We often make these decisions based on emotion rather than rational judgement. Let's be honest: Who hasn't fallen for the wrong one – be it the little charmer in a less desirable neighborhood, or a different kind of charmer who needs to grow up?

Both are long-term commitments that require legal documentation

While it's true there's always the possibility you could get a divorce or sell your home, most people enter into marriage or a mortgage with the expectation of being together for a considerable amount of time – think "forever home" and "until-death-do-us-part."

And getting married or buying a house involves legally-binding paperwork, such as a marriage licenses, prenups, titles, closing documents, etc.

Both have pros and cons, financially

Cohabitating couples (single or married) usually share living expenses, which is a significant benefit to the wallet. However, being married or sharing a mortgage can also negatively affect your financial health. Nothing can drain your savings or ruin your credit score faster than a spouse who racks up debt, or a cohabiter who stops paying their portion of the mortgage. These negative situations can often result in the end of the relationship, which leads to my next point.

Both involve complicated exit plans

Unlike renters who are free to pack their stuff and move on once they pay for the associated costs of breaking their lease, people who share a mortgage have a lot of loose (and expensive) ends to tie up. For them, breaking up entails financial and real estate decisions, such as refinancing the home in one person's name or putting the house up for sale.

Similarly, a couple ending their marriage will have to bear the complications and costs of splitting their assets, hiring divorce attorneys and agreeing to settlements.

The verdict: Marriage is a bigger commitment

Although there are many similarities between a mortgage and marriage, I conclude marriage to be the bigger commitment for these two reasons:

  1. Marriage carries more financial risk – When unmarried partners share a home, they are both liable for costs related to the home, which can be significant but are limited in scope. Married couples, on the other hand, can also be responsible for each other's financial obligations, such as credit card debt, medical bills, car loans, student loans – even future living expenses – in addition to the mortgage.
  2. Marriage has greater social implications – A mortgage generally affects only the two people on the title, whereas a marriage more deeply involves two sets of families, friends and often children (not that you have to be married to have children). And, selling a house is more common; often viewed positively as "moving up." Moving doesn't carry the same social stigma as a "failed" marriage often does.

The bottom line?

Both can be a dream come true but merit careful consideration and preparation. I can't help you decide whether to pop the question, but check out part 2 of this series: How to protect yourself legally and financially when buying a house together as an unmarried couple.
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Julie Tramonte is a writer who joined MGIC in 2018. Prior to flying the coop, she wrote for a mattress company, a manufacturer and advertising agencies. She’s obsessed with reading, traveling, tennis and rearranging furniture. Mother of 2 beautiful, adult daughters. Empty nester who recently downsized. Her guilty pleasures are doughnuts and the Kardashians (don’t tell anyone).
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