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THE PLAYBOOK: Strategies for Selling a Divorcing Couple’s House

Editor’s Note: The Playbook is a new RISMedia weekly segment centering on what brokers and agents are doing to ensure they not only survive but thrive in these challenging times. Industry professionals explain the strategies they’re employing and unique ideas they’ve formulated. Tune in every Thursday for another addition to the series.

Your non-stop networking efforts paid another dividend! You’ve been recommended by a friend and previous client to a couple selling their co-owned house. The only downer is that they’re divorcing and barely communicating. It can be a slippery slope, especially for a newer REALTOR®, and you will for sure earn your commission with this one.

“The most important thing when a divorce situation arises is to approach it with tremendous sensitivity and empathy to what’s going on,” says Alexander Chingas of the Bross Chingas Bross Team at Coldwell Banker Realty in Westport, Connecticut. “Most times you’re helping people sell a house for happy reasons. They’ve been planning or looking forward to relocating somewhere, or it’s time to trade up or trade down as part of accomplishing a broader set of goals.

“But with divorces, it’s often families that didn’t want to be in this situation, and can be further complicated if one spouse wanted to hold onto the property but that’s not feasible, or a court decided that wasn’t going to happen. You never know what you’re getting into, so you have to just listen, read the room and figure out how you can best serve their needs at one of the most sensitive times people could be selling a property.”

Keeping everyone in the loop

Jeffrey Decatur is a broker associate with RE/MAX Capital in Latham, New York. With 28 years of real estate experience, he’s handled the sale for divorcing homeowners many times, and follows one absolute-must rule.

“It can be very tricky,” he admits. “The thing with people getting a divorce and selling their house is, you have to make sure one side doesn’t think you’re favoring the other side. What I always do is put everything in every email, and cc everyone in every correspondence. Period. End of statement. Because if one side finds out that you talked to the other side and said something they don’t know about, it opens the door to a lack of trust. Then it’s, ‘What else don’t I know about?’”

Both agents agree that it is vital to ask a lot of questions during the initial consultation in order to ascertain as many details as possible before moving forward.

“You have to empathize with everyone, but in doing so, you have to ask intelligent questions in order to figure out next steps,” says Chingas. “Very often, depending on where they might be in the divorce process, couples may be governed by decisions that a judge or a mediator has already made, specifying the time by which the property must be listed, or price targets, rather than leaving it up to the two individuals who maybe can’t agree on much between themselves. Going through all of that with them, and what the process is going to look like, is important.”

Getting the highest price for a house would seem to be what both parties in a divorce want, correct? Not always.

“Sometimes one side wants the sale price really, really high and the other side wants it really, really low,” Decatur explains, “because one side is trying to buy the other side out, so they want to pay as little as possible. They’ll try to do or say things on the sly to make it happen.

“At that point, the attorneys usually get involved. The other attorney will jump in and say, ‘Hey, this is going to look bad for your side in front of a judge that you’re doing this.’”

Chingas admits that selling a house for people divorcing takes a lot more work on his end, mostly because of the extra time he needs to spend going over everything twice, once with each side, but it’s all part of the business.

“Very often the homeowners are not communicating with one another and don’t want to be together when meetings take place,” he says. “And yet, they want to be involved and heard throughout the process. So as the REALTOR®, you have to be willing to have two sets of meetings. Being accommodating and giving them the whole of your time can go a long way toward keeping things productive and respectful.”

Again, Decatur cautions, it is imperative not to have one side thinking you’re favoring the other.

“Typically, one person is more difficult to deal with than the other,” he asserts. “But no matter how much someone is easier to deal with, you can’t hone in on that person. You still have to work with both. And include their attorneys if one side is starting to get out of line.”

When the court makes decisions

While it extends the process, Chingas notes that having the divorce proceedings and details in court, with a judge making rulings, can simplify things for all concerned.

“Very often the court will direct that the real estate broker submit a property analysis, and then there may be a separate appraisal, after which they average the figures to establish a list price,” he explains. “Then if an offer is received within a certain percentage of the average, it must be accepted or negotiated.”

Most of the time, the agents agree, both sides do want the top price for the house because they will split the proceeds.

“I’ve seen remarkably collaborative efforts from people divorcing, sometimes more so than couples who are together and you’d expect to be more on the same page,” says Chingas. “I remember one time everything about a house sale went smoothly, normally, and then they nonchalantly mentioned after it was over that they were going in separate directions. I had no idea from the start that they were divorcing.”

Even in the best of times, buying or selling a house has angst involved. So add in the divorce element and it can get very stressful

“It’s emotional, almost always, whether they’re splitting up or under any other circumstances,” says Chingas, who estimates that about 15% of the sellers he represents are divorcing. “Because in real estate you’re dealing with the roofs over people’s heads and their money. And nothing is more emotionally charged for them than a transaction where those two things overlap.

“A good agent is always wearing many hats, and one of them can be a form of family therapist. You have to be available, let people vent, and help them see the vision of what the future is going to look like once they get to the other side of the transaction. That everything is going to be okay.

“You’re working with people who bought a property under the best of circumstances, at a time in their lives when things were going great. They envisioned themselves staying in that house a long time. It was a place where they thought they were going to live into their retirement, or have the grandkids there, that kind of thing. And suddenly, those hopes and dreams are being shattered and taken away from them.

“It’s a lot to grapple with. You have to take cues and do the best you can for them. You express how empathetic you are and appreciate how hard it must be on them, and try to achieve the best outcome from a difficult situation.”

For a REALTOR®, there’s no substitute for experience in something like that.

“Selling a divorce house can be very challenging,” concludes Decatur. “But if you get burned once and learn from your mistakes, and understand how to do it, then it’s like any other sale. You just have to be more vigilant.”

5 key takeaways

  • Sensitivity and empathy are crucial when working with divorcing couples who are selling their house.
  • Keeping both parties in the loop on everything by sharing information via email can help avoid the appearance of favoring one side or the other.
  • Finding out immediately whether the court or a mediator is involved will save time and make decisions like price and selling date easier.
  • Be prepared to experience more emotions from sellers than you would with happily married couples moving for positive reasons.
  • Attorneys may need to get involved if one side is trying to gain favor or an edge through you or by other means.

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