There's love and marriage and then there's love and a mortgage.
Millennial couples are more likely to buy a house together before they take their wedding vows than their parents and grandparents were, according to a new Coldwell Banker Real Estate survey.
Almost a quarter of married homeowners aged 18 to 34 bought a home together before they were married, compared with 14 percent of those aged 45 and older.
It's good news for the housing industry that has fretted about a steadily growing trend: Every year, men and women are waiting longer to get married. In 2012, the median age of men who married for the first time was 28.6, up from 26.1 in 1990. Women: 26.6, up from 23.9.
Since buying a home often follows nuptials, delaying marriage could delay homeownership.
"We didn't expect to find that couples committed to each other to buy homes before they were married," says Robi Ludwig, a psychotherapist who works for Coldwell on lifestyle surveys and buyer habits. "It's almost like buying a home is the new engagement ring."
Married homeowners said buying a house did more to strengthen their relationship than any other purchase they made together.
"Increasingly, Americans and especially Millennials see marriage as something that should be entered into only after you've taken several steps toward showing your maturity," says Stephanie Coontz, co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. "It's not something you jump into."
Two-thirds of all married couples today lived together before they walked the aisle. Buying a home together is a big proof of commitment.
"The purchase of a home is a monumental step in their relationship," Ludwig says.
The online survey of 2,116 adults March 8-12 found that couples who bought homes before marriage were all planning to tie the knot.
Their decision to buy a home first "was based on being financially savvy," Ludwig says. "Opportunities were coming up in the real estate market and with low mortgage rates, and they take advantage of these ideal conditions and didn't feel they had to wait till they got married."
That's why Lauren Farris, 28, and her boyfriend Mark Sieckman, 30, of Chicago are house hunting. They're not living together and not yet engaged. But they're committed to spending their lives together and determined to buy a condo they can move into when her lease runs out June 1.
"The timing is right," says Farris, a senior media buyer at A. Eicoff & Co. ad agency. "Things are moving so quickly that listings that come on today could be gone tomorrow."
Her parents are helping them make an all-cash offer and are no longer concerned that the two haven't set a date.
"We get along really well and want the same things out of life," Farris says. "We know we're going to be married one day. ... We really don't have any concerns. We need to take advantage of the situation and get a head start in life."
By delaying marriage, some couples can afford to buy big — as long as they have good jobs and clean credit, and interest rates are low.
Detroit-area engaged couple Bryan Carter, 28, and Lisa Valesano, 30, are building their starter home: a $300,000, four-bedroom house with granite countertops. Carter's parents "were definitely surprised that we were building a house at such a young age," he says.
Other findings in the survey:
Southerners are more likely to take the traditional route. Almost three-fourths of married Southerners got a marriage license first, a mortgage second, compared with 60 percent in the Northeast.
Only 16 percent of married Americans have not bought a house with their current spouse.