Lew Sichelman

In a perfect world, a couple in the midst of a divorce would sit down together and calmly figure out what to do with their house. But, of course, this is not a perfect world. 

Sometimes, in an attempt at a power play, one spouse simply disappears. And in rare cases, both spouses vanish, according to realty agents Sally and David Hanson, the only certified real estate divorce specialists in Wisconsin. 

Divorce is an emotionally charged event, the Hansons pointed out on the real estate forum ActiveRain. Often, one spouse will take a hike when they believe the other one is exerting too much control over the situation. Sometimes, they disappear before an agreement is reached on how to sell the house. But once in a while, a soon-to-be ex takes off after the place is sold but before the deal goes to closing. 

If the game of hide-and-seek is temporary, and the spouse reappears as if nothing happened, the sale can start moving again. But if they never come back, the transaction can easily fall apart. 

That’s what happened to agent Margaret Gross of Winnetka, Illinois. In what she recalls as a “terrible memory,” her client, the husband, “ghosted on me” and refused to answer Gross’ calls. He wasn’t upset with her, she says: “It was his way of getting back at his wife.” 

Literally Between Warring Spouses 

In some situations, disappearing may be smart. Better to take off and cool off than act out in an aggressive manner, said Dorte Engel of RE/MAX Leading Edge in Bowie, Maryland, who said that one of her colleagues was once threatened with a machete. In another instance, emotions were so high that Will Hamm of Hamm Homes in Aurora, Colorado, had to sit between warring spouses.  

One way for agents to deal with angry spouses is not to allow them to be in the same room together. Deal with them one at a time, separately. Another, perhaps better, way is for the couple to hire a skilled divorce real estate listing team and let them do their thing. 

But the best way, advises Myrl Jeffcoat of GreatWest Real Estate in Sacramento, California, is to sit down together and discuss the situation as calmly as possible. After all, while the joy of living under one roof may have been lost, you may still be living together as housemates until the place is sold. 

Of course, the house may not have to be sold at all. If kids are involved, one spouse will often want to remain in the house with them so their lives are disrupted as little as possible. 

“If there are children in the house, please put them and their well-being” above all else, said Jeffcoat. “Doing so will help you focus on things more important than your own discomfort. If the children suffer less distress, it will be easier for all of you.” 

Details Matter, But Are Tricky 

Whether the house is to be sold or not, spouses are wise to negotiate calmly about who will get what or how the mortgage will be handled. 

If the place is sold, they must decide: How will they divide the proceeds? Will both get half or will one receive more? Or if one of them wants to keep the place, who will pay the mortgage – both in some kind of shared arrangement, or the one who remains? How will utilities and other household expenses, including maintenance, be handled? 

If soon-to-be-former spouses address these things early on, before one gets bent out of shape over something else, it will go a long way toward making their remaining time together as bearable as possible. 

It’s not easy, of course, as Paul Henderson of Fathom Realty in Tacoma, Washington, can attest. He’s had only one amicable divorce situation; he said the rest have been “war zones” in which “cease-fires were out of the question.” 

If divorcing couples can’t come to some kind of understanding, it may be best for one of them to move out.  

“In my humble opinion, it’s best to vacate and separate rather than endure the consequences of living together,” said Kimo Jarrett at Wiki Wiki Realty in Huntington Beach, California. “Emotions become a force of unreasonable and malicious retaliation, increasing stress and anxiety.” 

Even if divorcing spouses keep their cool until the closing day, it doesn’t always pan out. 

Years ago, Kat Palmiotti of eXp Realty in Kalispell, Montana, was working with a client seeking to buy a house from a couple who, unbeknownst to her, was in the middle of a divorce. When it came time to close, the wife refused to sign the contract until her soon-to-be ex-husband agreed to pay a “very large” credit card bill that had nothing to do with the house. 

“He didn’t pay, she didn’t sign,” said Palmiotti, “and my buyers didn’t get the house.” 

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. 

War Stories: Selling During a Divorce

by Lew Sichelman time to read: 3 min