Selling your home when you get a divorce: what is the process?

By Myriam Benhamou

One of the difficult consequences of a divorce is that you often have to sell the family home. Of course, homes are often sold, and for a variety of reasons – for example, the need or desire to buy bigger or smaller, or to change neighborhoods or cities – and while these events can certainly be a cause of anxiety and trepidation, it can generally be assumed that sellers will experience this event relatively well and that most will even look forward to moving to their next home. But when the motivation is a divorce, the situation is likely to be quite different, and unless the divorce is amicable, there is a good chance that the sale will prove much more difficult.

To better understand the situation, we must first talk about the importance of the family home before we can discuss the challenges inherent to its sale and how to meet these challenges and finally highlight the advantages of working with a real estate agent specializing in divorce.

The importance of the family home

To start, the home is an asset that is likely to have different meanings for the parties involved and it becomes even more complicated when there are children still living at home.

  • First there is the emotional aspect – the home holds memories and for many, memories of a happier time when the spouses had dreams and made plans together for the future. It was a witness to the baby’s first steps, birthday parties or family festive dinners. And while happy memories may gradually have turned into bad memories (sometimes even nightmares), having to leave the home may still be difficult to accept, and that is often because of what the family home traditionally represents.
  • Indeed, the family home is generally synonymous with stability, security (especially for children) and for some, even social status. 
    • It makes it possible to delineate the family perimeter and give support to family members.
    • It contributes to the sense of belonging and the notion of identity.
    • It is a sanctuary that protects our privacy and houses everything that is important to us and to which we are attached (whether people, personal belongings or souvenirs).
    • Finally, it preserves the family and social bond and is therefore the place where children are expected to flourish. 

Consequences can be catastrophic for the spouse who is forced to leave the home; consequences often amplified in the context of “gray divorce” where couples separate late, after several decades spent together. “Gray divorces” are difficult for both parties, but unfortunately, often even more so for women than men, and can seriously damage both spouses’ finances. It is indeed more difficult to rebuild financially for obvious reasons related to age and the fact that there is not as much time left to find work or continue working. Similarly, one of the spouses may not have had the same career progress or earning potential. As a result, one or both spouses’ life journey will often be completely disrupted.

So, what are the challenges?

Challenges

They are numerous and are present at every stage of the transaction.

  • Motivation.  The spouses’ motivations and expectations for the sale can be completely different. For instance, one spouse may want to sell as soon as possible (and therefore not necessarily at the highest price) in order to be able to start his or her life over with the person he or she has already met. But for the other spouse, the higher the selling price of the family home, the better that spouse’s chances to find a decent apartment
  • Exclusive sales agreement. If both spouses are on title, both spouses must sign the exclusive sales agreement with the real estate agent – which means that the agent will represent both parties, in a situation that can be very conflictual.  
  • Lack of cooperation. Representing a couple can be difficult in the best of cases, but at least the spouses have a common goal: to sell the home for the best possible price; and it is therefore reasonable to anticipate being able to find a common agreement.  Here, however, the objectives are different, the motivations are different and above all the sale will have consequences that can be radically different for each party. There is, therefore, a good chance that the parties will make decisions separately and will be contentious on just about anything and everything.
  • Selling price. Before they can sign the exclusive sales agreement with the real estate agent, the parties must agree on the sale price. Several scenarios can arise: a party is very emotionally attached to the home and thinks that it is worth much more than in reality; or a party may want to get as much money as possible because he or she needs it post-divorce as his or her financial future may depend on how much money is derived from the sale; or the parties have simply come to detest each other and do not want to cooperate. This can lead to fierce fights between spouses with very little room left for a reasonable outcome.  
  • Sales dynamics. The parties must also agree on details such as the preparation of the home for the sale (e.g., decluttering and storing, which requires some cooperation and which costs money); acceptable times for visits by potential buyers; or how much to spend on advertising or marketing.
  • Offer. Both parties must accept an offer and be willing to negotiate it.
  • Closing of the transaction. Finally, the spouses must accept and sign the necessary documents for the closing of the sale, which again, requires some cooperation.

How to meet these challenges and what are the advantages of working with a real estate agent specializing in divorce?

What is the best way to address these challenges – and why is it important to hire a real estate agent who specializes in divorces? As has been demonstrated, a sale resulting from a divorce cannot be treated as a regular transaction because it is not a regular transaction.

  1. Why a real estate agent specializing in divorce is an asset

In order to be able to receive a certification as a “Real Estate Certified Divorce Specialist”, an agent has to receive prior training that allows him or her to recognize the applicable challenges and deal with them before they become unmanageable. This specialist is better equipped than a more traditional agent to assist a couple who is divorcing because he or she has a better understanding of the ramifications of a divorce (whether financial, legal, or psychological) and its impact on the sale of the home. The agent can therefore provide a divorcing couple the necessary support throughout the process. 

2. How can these challenges be met?

It is important to work with a real estate agent who will know to:

  • Remain neutral. The agent must first remember that the agent represents both parties and that they may be very unlikely to cooperate with each other – but nevertheless, the agent must remain neutral and impartial, and must take a diplomatic approach to each decision (including knowing when it is advisable to give the parties the space they need to reach a consensus). This is not always easy because, in some cases, one of the spouses has already left the marital home which means that by necessity (for example, organizing visits) the agent tends to be more in contact with one of the spouses than the other, and sometimes that spouse gradually becomes more comfortable and can indulge in some confidences that can impact the neutrality of the representation.
  • Communicate. The agent must explain very clearly how he or she intends to communicate with both parties (keeping in mind that both must be kept always informed and in the same manner).
  • Rely on facts. Deciding on the value of the home can be difficult because the parties often have very different ideas about the value of the home in question. The agent must propose a selling price that clearly relies on the reality of the market. He or she will therefore have to prepare a detailed, fact-based valuation where the agent will indeed have to demonstrate in detail the previous comparable sales to make it clear that the proposed price is in line with the market. It is also a way to remove the emotional aspect from the equation.
  • Stay flexible. The agent must know how to remain flexible (and patient!). Some spouses, in fact, become true masters in the art of delaying the sale.

Myriam Benhamou is a Licensed Real Estate Associate Broker and a Real Estate Certified Divorce Specialist and is at your service, always looking forward to fulfilling your housing needs and protecting your best interest. Contact BARNES New York below to tell us more about your needs.

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