Till default do us part

Would you go into business with your partner? Chris Partridge reports on the couples who buy to let
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The Independent Online

Couples are investing in buy-to-let property in the way they used to take up doubles tennis , hoping to win by teamwork. But psychologists warn that, just as marriages can fail on the tennis court, so mixing business and relationships can be risky.

Couples are investing in buy-to-let property in the way they used to take up doubles tennis , hoping to win by teamwork. But psychologists warn that, just as marriages can fail on the tennis court, so mixing business and relationships can be risky.

Lee Grandin, the managing director of the buy-to-let lender Landlord Mortgages, has seen a huge increase in the amount of business he gets from couples. Nearly half his borrowers are married, and nearly 90 per cent of his most successful landlords are part of a property investment team, normally man and wife. "Married couples tend to be more successful than single investors as they are both able to devote time to managing and improving their portfolio," he says. "They are able to motivate each other and have a common goal, often a comfortable retirement, to which they both aspire."

According to research, the average investor couple, Mr and Mrs Buy- To-Let, are financially successful . The husband is aged 44 and earns £41,000 a year; the wife, 43, does not work. They own their own £371,000 home plus three investment properties.

Although this couple take the modern approach to their investment partnership and share equal status, they are a picture of old-fashioned values when it comes to defining their roles. Mr Buy-To-Let organises the finances and does the DIY, while his wife chooses the colour scheme, hangs the curtains, interviews the tenants and manages the property.

But psychologists are not optimistic about the long-term prospects for buy-to-let couples. The Edinburgh-based chartered corporate psychologist Benjamin Williams ( www.benwilliams.co.uk) believes the lack of formal structures in a relationship inevitably lead to friction where work is concerned.

"The problem with husband-and-wife teams is that they are not corporate bodies with defined rights and duties," he says. "Couples as business entities are a disaster because family values conflict with business aims." The stresses that are surmountable in a marriage can be amplified in business. "One person will be more dominant and that dominance can disguise strains. The husband might see the operation as an investment, but the wife knows who is going to do all the work."

Professor Nigel Nicholson, of London Business School, believes husband-and-wife teams are biologically less suited to going into business than traditional parent-and-child firms. "The main hazard is that there is no genetic bond between husband and wife, so they can fall out at work," he says. "Couples can see too much of each other - they promise to stay together for richer or poorer but not for lunch." Professor Nicholson believes the imbalance in most relationships tends to undermine the business. "There is extensive literature about the business relationships of husbands and wives, and it is clear they need to have a very good understanding of the division of labour," he says. "One party can feel like an unpaid skivvy, usually the woman. She feels put-upon because she does the housework while the man does the planning."

David and Abigail Knight seem to be doing the right thing in their joint buy-to-let operation in the Surbiton area. They now have 24 properties worth about £4 million. For a start, they have complementary skills - he is a banker, she an interior designer, and they look at their properties with detachment, rather than as surrogate homes. The decor, for example, is not used as a showcase for Abi's skills. "The way I would do up a property is not the way I would do up my house," she says. "Our properties are clean and modern but not boring. People want a canvas on which to paint their personality." They also choose properties as investments, when many couples look on them as status symbols."We started with one-bedroom flats and moved into multiple-occupancy houses and student homes," says Abi.

David clearly does not want Abi to feel that all he does is sit in his office and stare at a computer screen. "I get involved with finance and rent collection and most of the maintenance issues - today I unblocked a toilet, hung curtains and fitted a shower. If something goes wrong I have to fix it," he says. The couple also collaborate on their main mission, which is running soul-healing workshops, a business subsidised by their property.

Successful though the Knights may be, lettings agents, who see more buy-to-let landlords than most people, are cynical about husband and wife teams. Leslie Harrison, a lettings manager at Jackson Stops & Staff, says: "I have never encountered a husband and wife team that didn't argue. They always look at properties as somewhere they would like to live, rather than at investment suitability."

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