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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Divorce and real estate…

I heard recently that January 7th is the number one divorce day on the annual calendar. I have no idea why (some in the audience suggested that it was New Year’s Resolutions being acted upon). I suspect that divorces are never as neat and clean and some would lead you to believe and often much messier and complicated behind the scenes than one can imagine. So far, after 42 years, my wife and I have yet to test that theory and I hope we never do. Divorces can be especially messy, if there is real estate involved in the settlement. Real property often represents a good deal of the “wealth” that must be divided between the parties in a divorce.

Occasionally there will be one ex- in the divorce with the financial wherewithal to “buy-out” the other and retain ownership of the property. That certainly makes things easier. More often than not; however, the parties will have to agree in the divorce decree to sell the homestead and divide the proceeds. That’s where the tough job begins for the Realtor involved. Most often, when I get involved in divorce-driven listings, I find that one of the two parties has moved out (most often the husband); however, more and more I’m finding situations where both parties are still living in the house, albeit in some sort of arrangement that defines personal spaces and which may require special efforts in order to show the house.

In some cases the spouse who remains in the house may not really want to sell, either out of love for the place or fear of having nowhere to go once it is sold. That can make for a very dicey situation for a Realtor. Spouses who are reluctant to sell or move can make setting up showings difficult or can sabotage showings by leaving the place dirty and cluttered. Most often they just come up with reasons why “this isn’t a good time to show it”, hoping to drive would-be buyers away by making it inconvenient. In those cases the Realtor may have no recourse other than getting the lawyers and the judge involved again to issue strict orders to all the parties involved.

The other issue that can come up is that the remaining spouse may just fall into a very slovenly lifestyle, either out of depression or just a lack of caring about keeping themselves or the house up – and that can be either the ex-husband or the ex-wife. If there are children involved, still living in the house, they may also have mood swings that cause them to start living a different, often messier lifestyle, especially if the remaining spouse has to work every day.

So, as a Realtor, you have the potential for having a property to sell and having active saboteurs to the deal as part of the seller client set. It makes life interesting for the agent involved. The agent is bound by the Realtors Code of Ethics to equally represent both parties in these situations, so all communications, all calls for showings, and all decisions about things like pricing must be approved by both parties. That is often a negotiating process for every decision, sometimes again requiring the intervention of the court. Talk about being caught in the middle!

So how do I advise handling this situation? First, you have to determine the state of affairs in the whole thing – who’s going to cooperate and who’s going to fight this sale, if anyone. Then establish the ground rules with both parties. I usually insist on a meeting with both present where I lay out how this has to work (the both parties agree thing). Then I let both sides know what needs to be done (if anything) to make the house saleable. Finally, I let them know clearly what they can expect from me in terms of the marketing effort and the process ahead; and, I let them know what I expect from them, in terms of cooperation, access and timely decision-making.

At some point, we eventually come to that embarrassing pause; after I’ve put the question to them asking if they agree to all that we’ve discussed – especially their roles in the process. If the answer is no, it’s time to say thanks, but no-thanks and leave. It’s hard enough to sell properties these days without having to work to overcome constant roadblocks and objections from the sellers. If the two parties have not cooled down enough from the divorce proceedings to act like mature adults and work with you, let more time pass. Eventually sanity will return and they’ll still need a good Realtor.

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