Homeownership, the symbol of the American dream, has turned into a symbol of despair for some couples. The housing crisis has put a strain on relationships in general, but especially on homeowners in the process of a divorce or separation. Sluggish real estate sales combined with decreasing home values make it tough for couples wanting to get rid of their home - and each other.
Many Realtors have witnessed increasing cases where unhappy couples are forced to stay together in the same home while they wait for prices to rebound or the “for sale” sign lingers.
“For couples looking to separate and/or divorce, waiting for a home to sell can be a horrendous experience,” said Margeau Gilbert, Realtor with Exit Right Realty in Laurel.
This challenging real estate market is hitting divorcing couples in a number of ways. In addition to slow home sales and decreasing values, many find themselves in a situation where their home’s value has fallen so low that it’s below the amount owed on the mortgage.
In this situation, the family house - once a hot commodity - has become a burden for marriages gone bad. Neither spouse wants to be “stuck” with the home.
Vikki Ziegler, a divorce attorney based in New Jersey who is also a television personality, said each party needs their share of the equity from their home to fund their lifestyle, to use as a down payment or to buy out the other spouse for their share of equitable distribution.
More couples who are going through a divorce or contemplating divorce are choosing to live together in the house until they can sell. Even when potential buyers show interest in the house, it’s still a waiting game. Ms. Gilbert said that it is taking longer to receive responses from lenders these days.
“This results in some very unhappy people, but many couples just don’t have any other viable alternative [than to live together in the house],” continued Ms. Gilbert.
She said that sometimes when she shows a house, she can walk in and sense what’s going on immediately.
“Generally, the couple has compartmentalized their living arrangements into ‘his’ and ‘her’ areas and are living separate lives under one roof. This places an even greater strain on couples who are forced to live together for extended periods of time,” said Ms. Gilbert.
Ms. Ziegler added that these parties are “frozen in time” until they can sell their homes.
“This wait causes anxiety, acrimony and often snowballs into bigger problems,” she said.
If the real estate market doesn’t turn around, Ms. Ziegler speculates that domestic violence will continue to rise and that couples will take longer to divorce because assets can’t be divided and buyouts can’t take place.
Experts say that some couples are moving in with friends or loved ones until their home sells or are choosing to rent out their home for a period of time.
Professionals like Timothy Wesling, a certified divorce financial analyst and president of Wesling Financial Planning Services Corp. in Alexandria, agrees that more couples are delaying their divorce because of their housing situation.
“It’s a growing story in the market that makes the disposition of the home a lot different,” he said.
Mr. Wesling said that “who got the house” used to be a big part of the divorce settlement but that there’s often not much equity left in a home.
Divorcing couples are put in situations where they have had to get more creative. For instance, Mr. Wesling said that one spouse might have a large retirement account and may use that to make the settlement payment.
Traci Meakem Richmond, senior financial adviser and certified divorce financial analyst with the Meakem Group of Wachovia Securities in Potomac, said that she’s witnessed instances where divorcing spouses would take turns living in the house with the kids and situations where the wife lives upstairs and the husband lives in the basement.
While she said it varies by situation, in instances where children are involved, she advocates on behalf of the children and advises her clients to try and resolve the issue as soon as possible. She said it’s often better if they can bring cash to settlement or take a loss on the house (than to stay together and be miserable).
Ms. Gilbert agrees that feeling like you’re stuck living with one another is not an ideal situation and said that sometimes the tension in these homes can be palpable.
Elizabeth Blakeslee, associate broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Georgetown, said that combating spouses can also contribute to the problem of selling a house in this market, especially when one spouse wants to hang on to the house - but not necessarily to the marriage.
“They never agree to the price, the terms, or make themselves available for showings,” said Ms. Blakeslee, adding that some spouses request showings only take place during very specific time frames. “In some cases, they are looking to cause a lot of trouble and that’s when the other party has to get an attorney.”
She also recalls one case where a client was getting divorced and claimed that the separation agreement was agreed upon by both parties, only to find out (at settlement) that was not the case.
Psychologists and marital counselors across the country say that the stresses of the economy and housing market combined have contributed to growing marital issues for couples not going through a divorce or separation.
One recent transplant to the area, a woman who does not want to be identified for privacy reasons, said that she and her husband were happily married and living in a four-bedroom home but had to move into a two-bedroom apartment after her husband’s company was downsized. He was let go again, but received an offer for a position in the District where they are currently in a “decent sized” rental.
“Not only have we been affected by this experience, but our 4-year-old daughter has been forced to re-adjust to everything” she said. “The fights over money have become very intense. We don’t know if we’ll ever buy a house again.”
Realtors say that both couples who have had to move from their home due to the economy and couples looking to sell their home in this market are under enormous pressure.
“There are so many things to consider,” said Ms. Gilbert. “I had a listing where the strain was so tremendous that the couple ended up separating and are now filing for divorce - and this was a quick sale that took place in only 30 days.”
Ms. Blakelee agrees that if a relationship is already in trouble, the stresses of trying to sell a home and moving will increase their problems exponentially.
It could be several more years before the real estate market bounces back, although there are already signs of improvement in some areas.
“The market inside the Beltway is getting better, but outside the Beltway it’s getting worse,” said Mr. Wesling. “In places like Old Town, it’s not as much of a problem but in places like Prince William and Loudoun counties, [home] prices are still going down.”
Professionals including Realtors, financial analysts, lawyers and even the movers, often have a backstage pass to the drama that ensues when a couple with marital problems has a home to sell.
Ms. Blakeslee said that while Realtors are not marriage counselors, they need to know what financial considerations are involved.
“Anytime there’s a peripheral issue (like divorce, a job loss, death or possible foreclosure), it’s important to get it all out in the open. If a couple is getting a divorce and trying to sell their house, they need to give their Realtor as much information as necessary,” she said.
Ms. Blakeslee said that the agent needs to price the house correctly and prepare it to go on the market while staying neutral and not taking sides with combating spouses.
Selling a house in this market is not for the faint of heart. Ms. Gilbert said that it’s important that couples planning to sell be prepared for the challenges they will encounter.
“Couples who are flexible, resourceful and pragmatic are those that will weather the storm,” said Ms. Gilbert.