Mars and Venus Buy a House

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kathy Price-Robinson is a Santa Barbara freelance writer

After my new husband and I looked at the house we would eventually move into, I was stoked.

"We can put the green couch facing the door," I said excitedly. "And that big palm would go great in the corner. Do you want to put the straw shade on the front window?"

An unfailingly kind man, Bill turned to me in exasperation: "Those are details, Kathy. We'll get lost in the details."

"What lost?" I thought. This is the fun part. While my heart was soaring with decorating schemes, Bill's mind was laden with "the important stuff": Can we afford the mortgage? Is the foundation solid? Will the garage hold all the power tools?

Welcome to home buying with an alien--a Martian, to be precise.

As John Gray wrote in his best-selling "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," "your partner is as different from you as someone from another planet."

Rarely do those differences swell up more tsunami-like than when a couple shops for and buys a house, the largest, most stress-filled purchase most of us will ever make.

In my case, I relished the process of creating a home while Bill was focused on the goal. According to Gray, our vastly different ways of looking at home buying are normal.

"There really was a difference," said recent home buyer Jenny Connelly, 26, marketing director for the New L.A. Marketing Partnership, who bought a house in Century City with her husband, Bill, 34, an entrepreneur.

"I'm much more visual than Bill," said Connelly, who acted as the scout in the house hunt, scouring desirable neighborhoods with a real estate agent.

Once Connelly found a house with enough of their required qualities--two stories, separate master bedroom area, quiet neighborhood--she would bring her husband over for a look. But while Connelly could easily imagine modifications in an imperfect home, her spouse could not.

"Are you crazy?" he said at one house. "We can't live here. It has green shag carpeting."

"Oh, honey," she replied. "Let's pretend."

Actually, the Connellys are atypical, in that men are often adept at visualizing changes to a home.

The point is, like two poles of a magnet, opposites attract. The conflict comes, Gray writes, when men and women forget "they are supposed to be different."

By the time the Connellys had looked at dozens of properties--many that Jenny adored and Bill decidedly didn't--the couple were well aware of their differences. Ultimately they found the perfect house, which, in accordance with Bill's needs, was "in sparkling clean, move-in condition," said Jenny, who said she found a sense of humor to be critical in house hunting.

Here the Connellys displayed what Gray considers the key to relationships, which is not to change your partner, to make him/her more/less emotional/practical, but to understand how your partner reacts and to "relax and cooperate with the differences."

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Of course, once the Connellys' dream house was found, the couple had more diametrical reactions. "When we put down the offer, Bill was nauseated," Connelly said. "I was thinking: How fun! A house! He was thinking: Debt. Debt. Debt."

While their wildly opposite reactions are surprising to couples during a home search, these scenarios are all too common for the agents who witness them.

"We're programmed differently by God. Isn't it self-evident?" said Michael Cassell, an agent with Gilleran Griffin Realtors in Westwood who helped the Connellys find their home. "It's, like, obvious."

He said the Connellys' case was pretty standard fare for him.

"She was romantically in love with the house. He was detached," Cassell said. "Men don't generally fall in love with a house. He's not so concerned about how beautiful it is. He says, 'It suits my purpose. It's a good deal.' He's cold-nosed about it." Plus, according to Cassell, Bill Connelly's difficulty in choosing a house displayed that most Martian of traits: commitment anxiety.

"A man doesn't want to get tied down," Cassell said, whereas a newly married or engaged woman "is usually more keen to get the house. She wants to get the nest."

Al Keys, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor as well as a real estate agent with Prudential Jon Douglas in Santa Barbara, has found the same to be true.

"Most guys have a commitment problem. They don't want to get tied down," Keys said. "They want to see everything and they can't decide. We do it over suits. We do it over vacations. We do it over cars."

In one incident, a couple approached a home where Keys was holding an open house. Just past the threshold, the woman gushed: "This is my house." The husband was shocked: "You haven't even seen it. We've only been looking for 20 minutes."

In this case, the left-brain, logical husband and right-brain, intuitive wife were both "correct." While he needed more facts and figures to make a logical decision, she was sold on the feeling of the house, using her lightning-fast intuition as a guide.

And conversely, "I have bad vibes about this house" is a comment Cassell has heard from more than one woman. "I have never heard a man say this," he said.

Keys' clients did look at a few more houses and eventually made an offer on that first one.

Much of the problem, according to Keys, is rooted in tradition, where the woman ran the house while the man paid for it.

"Price is a huge issue to guys," Keys said. "Men still believe it's their responsibility to earn all the money for all this, even though the wife works." And that deep-seated belief causes the man to fear that his wife will fall in love with a house that he can't afford.

"A man gets frustrated. He feels he has to solve all your problems on the spot," said Carmen Abadilla of Diamond Bar, who recently trained with John Gray to facilitate "Mars and Venus" workshops in Southern California.

In the Mars and Venus paradigm, a typical man tries to solve all his problems by himself. If he simply cannot, he will mention it to someone and get help. A typical woman, on the other hand, is much more vocal about all her concerns, and will talk on and on about large and small matters in a free-wheeling fashion.

"We love doing these visualizations--the couch would go here, the flowers would go there," Abadilla said. "We're just talking, talking, talking. That's just us being Venusians."

In fact, Gray explains, while men tend to solve their problems in solitude, in their "caves," women often find clarity--and create intimacy--while talking things out.

"This drives men crazy," Abadilla said. "He thinks: 'Oh my gosh, does she want me to solve all these problems right now?' Their main goal is to solve Venusian problems."

The answer, Abadilla said, is for men to simply listen to women without trying to fix anything. "Uh-huh" is a good response. And when a man gets frustrated, the woman can say: "What is it I'm saying that's causing you to get overwhelmed?"

And most of all, Gray advises women, be careful about giving your man unasked-for advice. Here's how it works for Gray's Martians:

"A man's sense of self is achieved through his ability to achieve results. For him to feel good about himself he must achieve these goals by himself. Offering help to a man can make him feel incompetent, weak and even unloved."

These guidelines may sound helpful--until it's time to make the purchase of a lifetime. Then, it's difficult for a woman passionate about her nest to rely on the sensibility of a man who is more concerned about resale value than room for the family. And vice versa.

The solution may be to find a middle course, to meet some, but maybe not all, of both partners' needs. "Hopefully, each partner will like some features of the home," Keys said. Maybe she likes the kitchen and entryway, but not the front yard. Perhaps he likes the price and financing, but not the carpeting.

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But those needs and desires must be known.

"The biggest cause of marital problems is withheld information," said Larry James, a 23-year veteran of real estate sales who now writes books on and lectures about relationships, as well as hosting a weekly Mars and Venus chat on America Online.

"You have to sit down and reach some agreements," James said from his home in Scottsdale. "And this is for guys to hear: You have to let her say what she needs to say, without fixing."

Once both partners have a chance to spell out their greatest concerns--good interest rate, extra bedroom, large kitchen, manageable debt, etc.--the house hunting can proceed with more understanding and compassion, James said.

Keys added one more caution for men: "You have to know that buying a house is a woman's deal. If your wife is unhappy in the home, you are going to pay and pay dearly."

If you have a miserable spouse in an unacceptable house, Keys said, consider the high cost of therapy bills. "You might as well just get a bigger mortgage and put the money into that."

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Tips for Women:

* Go easy on the demands. Understand that a typical man wants to solve all your problems. When you're prattling on and on about your dreams and desires for the house, he's making a mental list of what you expect of him. Before long, he's overwhelmed and demoralized.

* Know that men tend to focus on the mortgage payment and whether or not the house is a good deal. Don't expect him to share all your fantasies about curtains and paint colors the way a woman friend might.

* If your partner is an engineer-type, expect him to rely more on facts and logic than on romance and magic when selecting a house to buy. For instance, he might ask the agent for the exact date the pipes under the kitchen sink were installed. Try not to get frustrated; your mate needs to gather this information before he can feel comfortable buying a house.

Tips for Men:

* Just listen to your partner. Realize that women want to talk out their fears and dreams about a house, without necessarily getting to a solution. She doesn't expect you to be Superman. She just wants an ear. Relax.

* And when you do get overwhelmed with her needs, tell her. During our home search, Bill kept our communication open by starting many sentences with this: "Let me tell you how what you just said feels for me. . . ."

* Don't discount your mate's intuition and instant impressions of a house. If she feels good in the house you buy, you will be living with a happier person. If she doesn't feel good in the house, even though logically she should, your life together will suffer.

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