Lew Sichelman

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to real estate. Each deal is different, and rarely does one go off without a hitch. But when it comes to divorce, selling a house becomes that much more complicated. 

When spouses are calling it quits, the situation calls for an agent who’s not only experienced in handling transactions between polarized people, but also one who can offer a little handholding. 

Agents who represent one side or the other are often called on to be part therapist, part ambassador, part spokesperson and part legal expert, said Florida broker Raquel Ramirez of Featured Properties International, a specialist in these situations. 

“Psychology is a big part of this. Knowledge of the legal process is, too,” explained Ramirez. And when there are kids and/or pets involved, or in cases of domestic abuse, “those transactions call for more awareness and finesse,” she says. 

“When children are involved, agents should work towards providing a sense of safety and familiarity. You don’t want to add to the trauma children already feel,” says Ramirez.  

Ditch the Lockbox 

One thing to consider: You probably won’t want a lockbox on your doorknob. It’s always best that your agent is present for all showings, whether a divorce is involved or not. But with a lockbox – even a certified electronic model provided by the local Realtors association – agents and their clients lose some control over who visits. Someone you don’t want in the house could send a “close friend” to the place, posing as a potential buyer. 

Ramirez is a Certified Divorce Specialist with the National Association of Divorce Professionals, a multidisciplinary group that includes legal, financial and mental health professionals, as well as realty pros. While NADP is not affiliated with the National Association of Realtors, the group offers classes that are accepted as continuing education credits for NAR members in some states. 

An agent should not try to be a therapist or financial advisor, said Liz Becker, NADP’s founder and president. But they should know who their clients’ other professionals are, and at what stage in the process their clients should be talking to them. 

“You can’t change the [divorce] laws,” Becker said, “but you can change the experience.” 

According to Becker, who says she has first-hand experience with this situation, many divorcing couples get stuck, unable to make decisions about what to do with the house. That’s often because one person or the other is clinging to the idea of the family home. But at that point, Becker points out, “it’s no longer a home, it’s a house – a commodity to be split, just like a bank account and other assets.” 

But at the same time, when children are involved, it’s usually best to keep family photos and mementos in place and maintain as much normalcy as possible until the day the house actually changes hands. Consequently, agents who recommend staging the property to appeal to the widest possible pool of buyers could be doing their divorcing clients a disservice. 

Common Pitfalls 

Selling a “divorce house” can go sideways in any number of ways. Here are a few common problems: 

Sabotage can be a big issue, said Ramirez. Say one spouse refuses to sign certain papers or allow a home inspector to examine the place, or the other spouse fails to show up at closing. Sabotage isn’t always intentional, but if it is, a lawsuit could result.  

To avoid such problems, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open so that contractual obligations can be met without delay. 

The person who is making the mortgage payments until the house is sold also has a major responsibility. If he or she fails to stay current, it could sink the sale. The same goes for homeowners’ association dues, utility payments and other bills. 

“In the best-case scenario, it’ll simply result in accrued interest and penalties, which will hurt their bottom line,” says Ramirez. “In the worst case, it could result in foreclosure. Failed payments also hurt their credit scores, which could hinder the process of purchasing a new property or even renting.” 

And how well the house is maintained can mean the difference between receiving full price or taking a big hit after the property has been sitting on the market for too long. 

“While this may seem like a simple thing that is relevant to all transactions, it’s quite different when you’re working with parties who are not on the same page,” Ramirez explains. “These things should be addressed early on to avoid deferred maintenance, additional costs, further disputes and missed opportunities.” 

Lastly, planning the exit strategy often requires careful coordination. It involves ensuring the soon-to-be ex-spouses have places to go and that they’re on track with the schedule. Here, the marital settlement agreement should be as specific as possible, addressing such matters as maintenance costs, listing dates and disbursement instructions.  

This is the first in my two-part look at this issue. Next week: Tales from the trenches. 

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 50 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance industry publications. Readers can contact him at lsichelman@aol.com. 

Selling Need Not Be a Divorce Issue

by Lew Sichelman time to read: 4 min