The Moneyist: My partner and I are buying a house. He is contributing most of the down payment. What would be a fair split?

United States

Dear Quentin,

My partner and I are buying a property together. 

He received a windfall, and is contributing the down payment and will be the person on the deed. Originally, he said that he would be the sole owner, but I objected, as “we are doing this together” (his words) and if we break up at some point, I am left with nothing. 

I will pay for half of the mortgage, and he will put a lot of time into painting, gardening, decorating, redoing the deck, and other tasks around the property, as well as buying furniture and other needed items. 

‘He has been divorced before and it was messy — so he does not want to repeat that experience.’

He thought this over and consented to this, as this would be unfair to me to put time, money and effort into something and not own it. He has been divorced before and it was messy — so he does not want to repeat that experience. 

We want to enter into an agreement with a lawyer that if/when we do break up, we have a contract to outline what will happen, how much money I would receive, etc., so that we are not trying to figure this out when emotions are running high during a breakup. 

I do not expect half of the equity, as he is putting down the down payment, just something fair. We would set up a spreadsheet detailing how much each person spends on the property. (If we are working on an event such as a wedding on the property, we will set up individual payments.)

How do you think we should proceed with this?

Would-Be Property Owner

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Dear Would-Be Property Owner,

He has enough for the down payment, but he would like you or needs you to contribute to the mortgage, so you need each other now. You may not, as you suggest, need each other in the future, either as romantic partners or financial partners, so it’s wise to lay down the ground rules now.

You both want to avoid a situation such as this, where a woman bought a house with her boyfriend, spent $ 30,000 on renovations, and was faced with splitting the sale 50/50 because — he claims — he lost the receipts. They did not have a written agreement before they bought.

If you buy the property as “joint tenants,” you each own 50% and, should one of you die, you cannot leave your half to a third party. If, on the other hand, you are “tenants in common,” you can decide on your respective shares, and leave your own share to a third party.

If you get married, revisit this contract with a prenuptial agreement.

One option for the down payment: You subtract that — plus the appreciation of that amount, based on how much the house has appreciated during that time — in the event you sell. That way, his initial cash contribution is recognized. You could not have bought the property without it.

In the contract, include what should happen if one of you wants to sell the house. Does the other have a chance to buy you out, and/or is there a notice period that must be given? Obviously, make sure your name is on both the mortgage and the deed.

Specify what should happen if major renovations are required. If your boyfriend pays for them, will that sum be treated the same as the down payment? If you get married, revisit this contract with a prenuptial agreement. Check your state law on cohabitation and common-law marriage. 

Good luck with the purchase — and with the relationship. 

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