- - Thursday, February 9, 2012

Selling a home can be tough enough these days, but couples in the midst of a divorce face additional challenges. When two of life’s biggest potential stressors are mixed, experts say it can wreak havoc on the real estate transaction if couples aren’t careful.

Jeanne Koerber, Realtor with Remax in Potomac, said that although each divorce situation is unique, it often is complicated by legalities and emotions. Even in a divorce that starts off amicably, discussing the sale of the marital home could lead to rash decisions.

Experts say it’s important to make sure couples don’t let emotions lead them into bad decision-making. Realtors and lawyers agree that communication is especially crucial.

As divorce remains prevalent, some Realtors have found a niche through professional certification in helping divorcing clients navigate the sale of their home. Ms. Koerber is a certified divorce real estate expert and said 95 percent of her business is working with divorcing couples who have been referred to her by attorneys representing one of the spouses.

“I can usually defuse the emoting feelings before they escalate too far,” she said.

She especially advises against using a friend or relative as the Realtor in the situation of a divorce.

“A neutral and experienced agent will know the right questions to ask even before the first meeting to assess what steps are needed to ensure a smooth transaction,” she said. “The most frequent problems occur when the agent does not have the training and understanding of the legalities, or is too close to the parties.”

Marc Cormier, a Realtor and certified divorce real estate expert with Keller Williams in Reston, said one of the biggest problems arises when one spouse wants to sell the home and the other person isn’t quite ready to let go. He said he also has experienced situations in which spouses say they have great communication, but it turns out to not be the case.

To lessen the conflict and stress, Mr. Comer said he advises clients to give one spouse power of attorney.

“Getting a power of attorney is good because it gets one person eliminated and gives the other spouse complete authority,” he said.

He also advises clients to have the home appraised as the first step.

“This way they can know exactly what the strategy is and whether or not there’s equity in the house or if they’re upside-down on the property,” he said.

Experts say many soon-to-split couples may be forced into seeking a short sale during a divorce because they owe more than the home is worth.

“Because property values have now dropped, couples are trying to do short sales when going through a divorce,” Mr. Cormier said. “Often one spouse can’t carry the [mortgage] by themselves since the income is being cut in half.”

Carolyn Goodman, a Dupont Circle attorney who specializes in divorce and family law, said drawing up a separation agreement is recommended so the couples know who is responsible for what, especially in the case where one spouse remains in the home until it is sold.

“One of the issues in a depressed market is that the house can sit on the market for quite a while,” Ms. Goodman said, adding that expenses to maintain the home can add up quickly.

She said the person in the home often is the one responsible for the repairs and upkeep. A separation agreement helps outline those responsibilities.

“I recommend a separation agreement to work out what’s going to happen and how you are going to divide a possible loss. It’s really important to have that information when it’s time to go to closing,” she said.

When it comes to marketing and showing the home, experts said it’s best that potential buyers don’t know that the home is on the market because of a divorce. Ms. Koerber said she’s frequently told by clients that they don’t want the situation to be perceived as a “fire sale.”

“A tip that I offer to couples is to have the clothing and personal items of both parties in and around the home. This is a security measure as well as a way to prevent fire-sale offers,” she said.

Mr. Cormier said sometimes buyers may decide to pass over homes on the market because of a divorce because they think one of the spouses may try to sabotage the deal or have a meltdown and decide not to sell.

Gregory Yancey, an attorney in Columbia, Md., said while communication is key in the real estate transaction, that can be easier said than done - a lack of communication often led to the divorce in the first place.

“I’d advise clients to try to be as logical as possible and pick your battles,” he said.

One of the myths surrounding divorce and real estate is that when the marital home is in the name of one spouse, the home belongs exclusively to that person, Mr. Yancey said. No matter whose name is on the mortgage or deed, he said, the home is still considered marital property and belongs to both parties.

He also recommended that couples agree to sell the martial home and both get a fresh start.

“Sometimes there are bad memories with the house. You have to think about if what you are fighting for is worth it,” he said.

Ms. Goodman added that it’s also best to keep emotions and vindictiveness out of the transaction in order to obtain the best sale price.