Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Moving in the Wake of a Divorce

A couple in their 30s -- a Spanish teacher married to a mechanical engineer -- had an explosive breakup due to suddenly discovered infidelity. Within a matter of hours, she’d packed up and moved, bringing the relationship to a sudden end.

But decisions about the couple’s real estate took much longer. Through their lawyers, the partners ultimately forged an agreement letting the husband retain ownership of the couple’s suburban house, a deal approved by the divorce court.

One year after the divorce, the husband decided to sell the house. Though he enjoyed its tranquil setting overlooking a nature preserve, life there proved too full of bitter memories.

Laurel Starks doesn’t know the couple in this true story. But as an expert on real estate and divorce, she understands why it took the husband a lengthy time to make a final decision on the sale of the house.

“Ending a relationship through divorce is usually new terrain, accompanied by its own riot of emotions. Together, these ingredients can make for an overwhelmingly traumatic experience,” says Starks, the author of “The House Matters in Divorce.”

“It’s not only the emotional issues related to housing that need to be sorted out in the post-breakup period. Often there are also many thorny financial issues involved," says Bojana Rovchanin, a chartered financial analyst who specializes in helping clients make real estate choices.

Of course, not everyone who owns a home post-divorce can afford to wait to sell. Some face court orders forcing them to do so. And others confront financial constraints that compel them to liquidate promptly.

Mark Nash, a real estate analyst and longtime broker, says that in the post-divorce period, many people cling to ownership of a family home because it represents their identity. This is especially common for women with grown children. Even so, moving to a different place can give them a fresh start on life.

“Keeping a house that’s essentially become a museum of your past life is usually very lonely. It’s also costly in time and money to keep a place with lots of extra space,” says Nash, the author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home.”

Here are a few pointers for those facing a post-divorce housing decision:

-- Seek guidance on the financial implications of your options.

Nash recommends that anyone facing a major money decision -- such as whether to sell a house -- consult a trusted accountant or financial planner before going forward.

“Everyone needs a reality check on their money. You need an impartial observer to help you make a careful assessment of your whole financial situation and analyze your alternatives,” Nash says.

Before you visit your adviser’s office, Nash encourages you to spend time with your checkbook and credit card statements to determine exactly how much your house is costing you.

“Many people greatly underestimate what they’re spending on home upkeep, household services and furnishings. They think only about their mortgage payments and taxes,” Nash says.

-- Frame your options within the big picture of your ideal lifestyle.

Often, people see their real estate choices in isolation from the larger issues of their lives, says Michael Knight, a planner affiliated with the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (napfa.org). But he says all major financial decisions should be made with your lifestyle preferences in mind.

Assuming you’re one of those fortunate enough to have financial options, to whom should you turn to help formulate your plans? Sometimes, a real estate agent who’s willing to listen to your story (and won’t push you to sell) is a better adviser than a close friend or family member.

“The people closest to you aren’t always the most objective. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a real estate agent, consider talking through your personal plans with a therapist or life coach,” Nash says.

-- Move toward a conclusion slowly and deliberately.

Nash, like many veterans of the real estate business, knows it can be a mistake to hurry into a home sale soon after a life-changing event, such as a marital breakup or the death of a spouse. For many people, this is an especially traumatic period if it occurs around the time their children have left the nest for college or other endeavors.

“When the last child leaves home, some people go through a personal crisis that can cloud their judgment,” Nash says.

He advises those navigating through any major life transition to wait as long as it takes to make a decision they know will be comfortable for them.

“If time allows, delay any big housing move until your gut -- and pocketbook -- tell you the time is absolutely right,” Nash says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)