Going through a divorce brings on extreme emotions, and having to deal with selling a home is one of the last things you’d want.
“I try to teach people to think with their brain not their heart,” says Laurel Starks, divorce real estate expert and author of Divorcing the House: A Guide to Understanding Your Options, the Pitfalls & Whether You Could-or Should-Keep Your Home in Divorce. She also is owner of Starks Realty Group in Southern California.
“This is a business decision, and the decisions you make now will affect your future. How you rebound from this divorce is directly related to the decisions you make when you are in the divorce,” she adds.
In many of the contentious divorces she has been involved in, the marital home can become a source of revenge, strife and sometimes financial ruin. That once important financial asset to the couple now becomes a chess piece.
But Starks has given advice to thousands of couples and teaches lawyers and real estate agents that it doesn’t have to become a tug-of-war.
The sale of a house usually comes because one of the two involved can’t afford it. The same income that went to support one household is now going to two households, and the cost of divorce can be outlandish.
The cost isn’t limited to lawyers’ fees. One spouse has to find new furniture. You no longer qualify for your cell phone’s family plan. Someone has to find a health insurance plan. The list goes on and on, and the expenses can pile up.
Here is Starks’ best advice for those selling a house during a divorce to give people an idea of how to come out of it financially OK and ready for their new life:
Take care of yourself
Through all the court dates, the doubts and the anger, self-care will become very important. You need your strength and best wits about you. You also need to believe that your best days are ahead, she says.
“Believe that this too shall pass. For me to have a client call me two or three years later, I sometimes don’t’ even recognize them as a person. All that toxic hell they were living through is over.”
Don’t be married to the house
Starks does not advocate remaining married to the mortgage. If one person can’t refinance the mortgage, then sell the property.
You are paying a lawyer to be smart for you, but some lawyers and even judges think that if you sign off on the title then you are signing off on the mortgage. That is not true, she says.
Don’t sabotage your own profits
Many times, one spouse does not want to sell the house, but there is a court order to do so. That anger causes the devil to come out and ruin parts of the house – or they sabotage an open house by not keeping the house clean.
“One time, we had to have the wife evicted during the escrow process. She sabotaged the sale, and now the court is sanctioning her. She has to pay her husband’s attorney fees now. It’s just dumb,” Starks says.
Hire a stager
“The showing condition of the house is very important. A lot of times in a divorced house, there is deferred maintenance, and no one can afford or has the energy to fix things,” she says.
The house is the number one form of capital in most marriages.
Many times, the couple ends up needing every penny they can get out of the house. Starks says that she rarely puts a house on the market if it isn’t staged to look it’s best – it can facilitate the sale.
Take everything when you move out
If you are the spouse moving out of the house, take everything with you right away.
“Don’t necessarily think you will go back without a court order,” Starks says. “If someone is thinking of divorcing and thinking of leaving, take everything that is yours with the anticipation that you aren’t going back. Many times the spouse comes back to get their stuff and the locks are changed, alarms are on, dogs are bought.”
Make copies of everything
Before you leave the house, make copies of all the tax returns, financial bank statements, and anything else you think could be important in the selling of the house.
Hire a real estate person familiar with divorce knowledge
In some areas, there are divorce real estate experts. If they are not titled that way, make sure to interview them to see if they have had a lot of experience of selling a house during a divorce.
The real estate agent must establish neutrality with both sides of the couple. They don’t represent one side or the other, removing any bias and helping things along.
Do your own investigation
Starks has seen in many divorces where the spouses themselves don’t know who is on the deed or if there are any judgments or liens against the house – including from the IRS. You need to find out all that stuff including the balance on the mortgage.