The Adjustable-Rate Marriage 

Skip the wedding and head to a Realtor's office. In the East Bay, mortgage is the new matrimony.

The original plan of Alexis Tjian and Rob Madison was to start thinking about marriage after she finished college. Both were in their late twenties, deeply committed, and sharing an Emeryville loft with their two dogs. Most of their coupled friends had already hitched up, and after nearly two years of dating they figured they'd take the plunge, too.

So they took it -- into a Realtor's office.

Like a lot of young couples in the real-estate-obsessed Bay Area, Alexis and Rob's biological clock was chiming "Buy a House" much louder than it was tolling "Get Married." In a soaring real-estate market, the wedding could wait.

"The bottom line is, around here, I felt more pressure to buy a house and find a place to live than to find a wife," says Rob, a 29-year-old bartender and budding contractor. "I figured if I didn't buy now, by the time I was 35 a regular house would cost us, what, $2 million?"

All they needed was the down payment. It wasn't easy to come by. Like 75 percent of first-time buyers in California, the couple needed help with the initial cash. Naturally, they thought of their Baby Boomer parents. Rob, a third-generation East Bay resident who was troubled by the thought of being priced out of his own hometown, pitched the idea to his mom and dad.

But Rob's parents had raised him Catholic and sent him to parochial schools. They were wary of this break in cultural tradition. Homes come after weddings, not before. Rob's mother even offered to take him to a jeweler to find an engagement ring. The folks never did come around. Neither did Alexis and Rob.

So the couple turned to Alexis' family. "I laid out a business proposal for my parents, and said, 'We're not ready to get married yet, but we want to buy a house,'" recalls Alexis, currently a student and freelance photographer.

Her parents considered this new type of arrangement. "We thought of it from a practical standpoint," says Claudia, Alexis' mom. "It was a way for us to help the kids -- and a way for us to diversify."

Eight months later, with her parents' help and blessing, Alexis and Rob purchased their El Cerrito home.

At a time when Bay Area real estate has been regarded as a golden investment, and couples are delaying marriage longer than ever before, more and more unmarried couples are heading to a Realtor's office. Consider this: Unmarried couples buying homes were so uncommon in 1990 that they accounted for less than 1 percent of all homeowners, according to the National Association of Realtors. In 2004, they made up a robust 10 percent of the market -- and in California, 12 percent, both all-time highs. In fact, the state's percentage of unmarried homebuyers is more than twice as large as its share of cohabiting unmarried couples in general -- 5.9 percent.

Apparently, nothing quite replaces "I do" like a thirty-year-fixed. "I'd say that buying a house is putting a ring on the finger," Rob opines.

While the decision to buy property was Alexis and Rob's first step into an official, paper-trailed union, the actual househunting process -- and the setbacks that came with getting outbid -- served as the stand-in for an engagement. After all, what is the smartest time to get to a peek at your partner's credit score -- before or after the honeymoon? And when's a better time to learn if granite countertops are a dealbreaker?

"It was stressful, but it was good for us," Alexis says. "Now we know we can get through anything together. We know we see eye-to-eye on the important things."

The risk of replacing nuptials with home ownership is the legal havoc that ensues if the couple splits. In the eyes of the courts, a marriage license is still the distinction between an economic union and a pair of individuals.

During the past two decades, changes in divorce laws have made things fairer for married people who want out; in general, they take what they brought in, and divide the rest. But unmarried relationships often involve creative financial arrangements that are more reflective of the times. In the case of Alexis and Rob, her parents loaned her the down payment, but he will do most of the renovation work, even though he's not on the title. The couple views this resourcefulness and teamwork as part of their bond -- each partner brings something to the table.

But how would a court of law recognize the agreement if they broke up? Not well. For the 5.5 million unmarried couples who cohabit in the United States, tax codes and estate laws have largely overlooked their status, even as they steadily increase their share of the home ownership market. In the absence of a marriage license, courts seldom recognize the joint economic interests that unite many unmarried homeowners.

"Being unmarried has become an alternative to marriage," says Frederick Hertz, an Oakland attorney who specializes in legal agreements between such couples. "But if you don't like what that deed says right now, you better have an agreement."


The Facts of Life

Time has been unkind to the institution of marriage. By 2003 the median age of first marriage had risen to 27 for men and 25 for women -- both all-time highs, according to the US Census Bureau. And first marriages are shorter than ever, a mere eight years on average. Meanwhile, the number of unmarried cohabitants has increased by 1,200 percent since 1960, according to a report from the National Marriage Project, a nonpartisan, nonsectarian pro-marriage think tank at Rutgers University. In this state, three of the four counties showing the greatest percentage increase -- San Francisco, Sacramento, and Alameda -- are in Northern California.

Research suggests that such unmarried relationships promote an equality between partners not common in the wedding-first generation. In their 2002 book Continuity and Change in the American Family, sociologists Lynn M. Casper and Suzanne M. Bianchi found that unmarried partners tend to share responsibilities more equally than married couples. Women in unmarried relationships are better educated and earn more than their married counterparts. They're also more likely to be designated as the "householder" -- the person who pays the rent or the mortgage. In fact, the Census Bureau has found that the woman is considered the breadwinner in 42 percent of unmarried households.

The rise of female breadwinners and the corresponding growth of women homeowners has helped to mask the surge in unmarried homeowning. Observers have long noted that single women comprise the second largest block of homeowners after married couples -- one in every five houses purchased last year was by a single woman. But what this data doesn't reveal is that many of these "female homeowners" are actually just the more creditworthy member of an unmarried couple.

Corey Weinstein and her partner, Chris Davis, bought their first home four years ago, when she was 29. Corey and Chris were the sort of artsy Oakland couple who once might not have considered buying a home; she worked at a small nonprofit and played in a band, while Chris lived in a West Oakland warehouse, worked as a carpenter, and had a band of his own.

Yet after a few years of dating, when they reached the critical point in their relationship, the talk passed over wedding invitations and headed straight to hardwood floors. Neither necessarily opposed marriage; the wedding discussion just took a backseat to home ownership, Corey says.

"It was just never a goal of mine to get married," she says now. "But buying a house felt like it would be a sign of where our commitment was. ... People certainly treated it like that."

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