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April 14, 1991|Sandra Tsing Loh | Edited by Mary McNamara

Forget modern marriage. With the divorce rate at 50%, we know that marriage is a high-risk business proposition. But modern mortgage , that's another subject. Gone are the days when a "cute, little starter home" was reserved for cute, little starter families (after the L.A. wedding, you can't afford a honeymoon, much less a house). It's the '90s, and many couples are saving their "I do's" for their loan officers. According to the California Assn. of Realtors, the percentage of single and "non-traditional" home buyers--many of whom are unmarried couples--has jumped from 29% to 36% of the market during the past five years.

"Home ownership is valued more than a happy marriage, an interesting job, high pay or even having a lot of money," insist real estate agents Diana Bull and Elaine St. James, authors of "The Equity Sharing Book: How to Buy a Home Even If You Can't Afford the Down Payment." In the inflated L.A. market--for $10,000 down, you're looking at Antelope Valley-adjacent--most Americans in the first-time-buyer age group (25 to 35) seem doomed to rent.

That's where Santa Barbara-based Bull and St. James come in. Self-styled matchmakers, their National Institute of Equity Sharing has arranged more than 300 equity sharing agreements between people, including unwed couples, who otherwise might not throw their lots, and their credit ratings, together. And now is the time to exchange those mortgage vows, they say; the market is soft and markdowns litter the state. Spouses may come and go, but how often can you afford to get into Southern California real estate?

The lending bank often requires a letter explaining the relationship, but that's about it. Yet, even in a buyer-friendly market, with fixed-rate loans starting at 9.8%, lovers' spats become a luxury only renters can afford.

"If our relationship can survive escrow, it's stronger than most marriages," says Maria Gonzalez, who is buying a house in the Hollywood Hills with her co-habitant of nine years. "We'll wait till we pay off the mortgage," she adds, laughing. "If we're still together, we'll think about it."

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