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“When we divorced we split the house 50/50 – she got the inside and I got the outside.”

 “Have you seen the new “Divorcing Barbie” doll? She comes with Ken’s house.”

House Divided

             Joking aside, the family home is sometimes the greatest asset to divide in a divorce – so let’s look at how to handle this crucial asset.

It is advisable to call a Realtor early on, when you’re analyzing what assets you have and don’t have.  I often get called in to look at the home and give an assessment of its value in today’s market.  It makes sense to call a Realtor at this point – we typically are more familiar with the neighborhood and have been in the homes that are for sale and have sold, and are accustomed to pricing properties for sale.

There are online tools you can use as well – zillow.com, for instance, which gives you a “zestimate” of what your home is worth, or trulia.com.  However, these services have obviously not been inside your home or the other homes – so they are very general and cannot necessarily be relied upon.  Tax records are also notoriously unreliable.

A crucial consideration at this point may be whether or not the couple is “underwater”; that is, whether you owe more on the property than the property is worth.   If so, to sell the home you would have to bring money to the table.  In other words, in some instances it may not be possible to sell the home.

Also consider early on whether or not you want to fight to keep the home.  Can you afford the monthly carrying costs?  It might not be worth fighting for if it’s something you cannot keep up.

If one party does end up staying in and keeping the home, however, that party may be buying the other party out.  In that instance, professional appraisals are probably in order – each side getting their own appraisal and then perhaps a third appraisal if the two vary widely.  Know that appraisals are an ART as well as a science – while appraisers are bound by the Uniform Appraisal Guidelines and professional dictates, there is some subjectivity in the process.  When you hire an appraiser, you might wish to share with them the comparable sales that you think are most applicable and why they should be used.  Most appraisers are happy to consider the information, although of course they are not bound to use it.

But say the decision is that the home needs to be SOLD.  It’s great if you can both agree on a Realtor.  That actually happens much more often than you might think.  Maybe you both liked the Realtor who sold you the home.  Or know a Realtor jointly who you respect.  Another tactic is to interview three Realtors and see if there’s a clear front runner who you can agree upon.  If not, one way this is sometimes handled is that one party will choose the Realtor for a specified period of time and the other party will choose for the next period – be it 3 months or 6 months.

Several considerations arise here.  Keep in mind that there are various expenses involved in getting the home ready for sale and keeping it maintained while it is on the market.  How those expenses are handled should be decided upon in advance.  You might also want to decide in advance how much the list price will be decreased and when – and what offers should be acceptable (i.e., you can agree that any offer within five percent of list price must be accepted, that sort of thing).

Then there are some very practical showing considerations.  An example will illustrate this point.  We had one client where the wife left with all the nice furniture.  We were left showing a home with very little furniture and a “divorce feel.”  Try to agree to keep enough nice things in the home to make it show well.  Like it or not, buyers are swayed by these things.  Most buyers choose emotionally and THEN justify the purchase logically.  If they walk in and the home feels forlorn and empty, they will not feel great about the home – or may think the seller is in desperate circumstances and thus make a lower offer.  It pays off to have the home nice for showings.  If nothing else, the parties can agree to borrow or rent furniture or to have the home staged for showings.

The home must also be AVAILABLE for showings.  This becomes an issue when the person staying in the home doesn’t necessarily want the home to sell.  Perhaps the other party is paying the bills, and so once the home sells the occupying party loses that support AND must move to a lesser home.

When an offer comes in, keep in mind that your net is less the Broker’s commissions, the mortgage payoff(s) and any repairs that will be necessitated during the inspection period.  Your Realtor can help you figure your net from a given offer.  Again, it is sometimes helpful here to have agreed what amount and type of offer should be acceptable.

A note here if one party stays in the home.  Be aware of title issues.  When you sell the home, a title search is performed.  If there are any liens against the property, these must be paid off before closing.  Even if you do not sell the home, if you are the one keeping the home you want to have a title search before all is finalized.  That way you can be sure the departing spouse didn’t borrow money against the house or otherwise create liens that you will be responsible for when you sell the house and which effect its value.

The final issue – housing options once you leave the family home.  This is for you and your Realtor to decide, but just a few things to keep in mind: do you need to stay in the same school district for the kids?  Do you need to stay close to the other spouse for the children’s sake?  Even the priciest zip codes have affordable options that your Realtor can help you find.  And keep in mind that emotionally you may want to stay in a familiar area; the one you’ve lived in or an area with friends and family near.