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Everything you need to know about co-owning a vacation house

The author and a friend about to set off for sunset fishing in a canoe. Photo: Timothy Harper

Have you ever thought about buying a second home but can’t afford one? Escape Home contributor Timothy Harper shares his story of co-owning a lake house:

After spending my first 20-some years in the Midwest, I moved to New York for work. The big city was exhilarating and exhausting and I loved it. But I soon began missing the woods, lakes and rivers. I missed the open views and big open skies.

“You’re not alone,” says Jane, another Midwest transplant whose desk was near mine. “That’s why so many New Yorkers have weekend houses. Most of us dream about a country place but can’t afford it.”

I began browsing through the real estate listings for country houses within an hour or two of the city. My modest savings were not enough.

One day, perusing real estate ads over lunch at my desk, I said, “Hey Jane, we could go in together on a country house.”

I said neither of us would use a country house more than a couple weekends a month.

“Why pay full freight when you’re using a place less than half the time?” I reasoned. “If we buy a place together and share all the costs, we’ll get the full benefit for half the price.”

Jane said, “Let me see those listings.”

Photo: Clay Banks

That was the start of a deepening friendship and an unlikely investment partnership that provided a foundation for one of the most enjoyable periods of our lives.

country-house partnership, sharing both the burdens and the benefits of an escape home, can make sense—provided both partners agree on how to split the bills, share the time, and end the partnership.

Jane’s boyfriend and my girlfriend seemed open to our experiment, but many friends couldn’t imagine a financial partnership with someone who wasn’t a romantic partner.

“You’re going to end up fighting over everything—what to spend money on, when you get to use the place. It will be a disaster,” people assured us.

We shrugged, and plunged into our wish lists. We wanted a place not too far from the city. Wooded. Maybe a view. On or near a lake. At least three bedrooms and plenty of space, inside and out, for entertaining.

We were willing to put in some work, but we didn’t want a fixer-upper.

We soon focused on Greenwood Lake, a small, mostly blue-collar village about an hour from the city, on a nine-mile long lake. It was the anti-Hamptons.

Photo: Hannah Wright

Jane made an appointment with a Greenwood Lake real estate agent who met us at the bus stop outside the village bar.

We liked a house on a wooded hill, up a steep and rutted blacktop road called Brook Trail. It had views of the lake below, and lake rights to a beach and boat dock.

Photo: Jeremy Tanguay

The house had three small bedrooms, a big kitchen and a 20-by-20-foot living room with two picture windows. No fireplace, but a corner begged for a wood stove.

Jane and I spent a few days plotting out how much to offer and convincing ourselves we could afford it.

We offered slightly below the asking price, and it was accepted.

The real estate agent arranged a survey and title search and connected us with a lawyer who said our partnership presented no more legal issues than any other business partnership.

The lawyer gave us a choice for our 50-50 ownership: if one of us died, our half ownership in the house would go to (a) the surviving partner or (b) the dead partner’s heirs. We both wanted (b). I made my girlfriend – soon to be fiance – my heir.

Jane and I took care of one other wrinkle on our own, the one that people in all sorts of partnerships often ignore at their peril: how to end the partnership. I wrote up a simple contract. If we both agreed to sell, we’d simply put the place on the market for whatever price our real estate agent recommended. Then we’d split the (hoped-for) profit.

But what if one of us wanted to sell, and the other didn’t?

We agreed on a classic solution. The partner who wanted out would name a price for the house. The other partner would opt to buy or sell at that price.

Photo: Hannah Wright

This structure encouraged the departing partner to name a reasonable price, acceptable to both parties whether buying or selling. If the departing partner was really motivated to sell, the number could be lower in order to entice the other partner to say “buy.” If the goal was to push out the other partner, the number would be higher to make the second partner say “sell.”

Jane and I signed the agreement, hoping we’d never need it.

Jane found a serviceable used car, and went for a test drive.

We bought the car, and drove it a couple weeks later back to Greenwood Lake with our certified checks for the closing. Afterward, we drove to the closest hardware store to stock up on brooms, mops, and other cleaning supplies.

In the first few weeks we did a lot of cleaning and organizing and throwing out old furniture, tattered linens, rusty pots and pans, and more. Jane asked me, and I asked her, before either of us moved a piece of furniture or threw anything away. There were no disagreements; if one of us wanted to keep something, we kept it.

 

Photo: Valeria Strogoteanu

Jane and I agreed to sign off on any expenditures beforehand, and then split the cost. This worked fine for things like roof repairs and gardening tools. Also a shiny aluminum canoe and a Vermont Casting wood stove. We each paid for personal stuff ourselves—such as Jane’s new fishing pole and my hiking boots.

Our one mini-dispute came up when I contributed a second-hand vacuum from our city apartment. I put a second-hand value on it, and put it on the list of expenses to split.

Jane pointed out that we each had already made several significant furniture and kitchen contributions from our apartment overflows—all stuff we weren’t using, and all without trying to bill each other.

I conceded, and the vacuum went to the lake for free.

Those first months, we spent lots of weekends at the house together, gardening and scrubbing and painting during daylight hours and cooking and eating and drinking in the evenings. Friends came up and pitched in.

Jane and I debated rules for sharing the house. At one point we considered an entire year’s schedule—some weeks and weekends were hers, some were mine, and a few were for whoever reserved them first.

The idea of a schedule disintegrated when we realized we had few conflicts. As it turned out, when one of us wanted the house for a weekend, we checked with the other. We made sure it was OK if we were going to fill up all three bedrooms. Sometimes when I was bringing up only one other couple, Jane was welcome to come up, too. She showed me the same courtesy.

We realized that we probably had more fun—and got more done on the house —when the other partner was there, too. The whole experience transformed us from co-workers to housemates to close friends, almost like brother and sister.

We had three glorious years using that house for weekends and longer, hosting gaggles of New Yorkers who came for weekends and to celebrate holidays. Jane and I spent overlapping weeklong summer vacations at the lake. We had epic daylong barbecues.

We got to know the neighbors and the neighborhood—who would lend us a ladder, where to get the best pizza, which bar had the best pool table.

It was a total blast. Until it wasn’t. 

One day, out of the blue, Jane announced that she had a new job and was moving out of New York. She wanted out of the house, too. I was upset. I didn’t want the partnership to end. I didn’t want that lakehouse to end.

Jane urged me to put the house on the market. She didn’t want to name a price. She was afraid I would say “sell,” and she’d have to buy my half interest. Then she’d have to try to sell it again—all while moving and starting a new job.

But before I could insist on following our partnership-ending agreement, a lucky thing happened. I got a new job, too. I was moving away, too. We called our real estate agent and asked her to sell the house.

Within a couple of weeks, we had a buyer at the asking price, which was nearly double our original purchase price.

Jane and I have stayed in touch, long distance, despite seeing each other only a few times in the ensuing years. When we do talk, we reminisce: the parties, getting snowed in, lying on our backs to watch meteor showers, and much more.

“I’ll always be grateful,” I’ve told Jane. “This crazy idea never would have worked if you hadn’t been such an open and flexible partner.”

“Back at ya,” she says.

More than once, we’ve congratulated ourselves for managing to break up the partnership but not the friendship. We didn’t need the buy-or-sell agreement, thank goodness, but it gave us both a fallback and a way forward.

Tips for co-owning an escape home

  1. Find the right partner. Someone you trust. Maybe not a friend, but someone reasonable, who is ethical, fair, and will do the right thing.
  2. Agree on who will pay for what, and that both partners must approve all shared expenses in advance.
  3. Agree on how to split use of the house, especially exclusive use. One partner should not have more holidays or more summer weekends. A good start is a long-range schedule with flexibility for swaps and taking up unused weekends. Maybe you’ll be lucky and won’t need the schedule.
  4. Spend time at the place with your partner. It’s the best way to decide what needs to be done — or not — and who’s going to do what. And it’s the best way to keep the partnership on track.

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