- Handling divorce property is a challenge in neutrality, plus you are doing a lot more work, keeping both parties (and their attorneys) up to date.
- Doing your due diligence in divorce real estate is crucial -- mortgage payments can often be in arrears.
- If you really want to specialize in divorce real estate, consider mediation training.
- Selling a divorce property rarely leads to more transactions because clients are typically financially strapped and not ready to buy.
- No matter how complicated the sale of divorce property may be, remember the phrase, “Just sell the house.”
Laurel Starks remembers her first successful sale of a divorce property.
It was early in her real estate career in 2006. An attorney friend got her appointed as the agent on a court order to sell a house.
And when she arrived to see the house, it was not at its best.
“I opened up the door; there were boxes stacked floor-to-ceiling, and the home had been flooded because a pipe burst and the wife did not have the money to get it properly sucked out, so she was using buckets and bins,” Starks remembered. “She’s telling me her story: her husband had a girlfriend, she needed to take her son to Oregon for a new school, and I thought, ‘This is nothing like they teach you in real estate school.'”
She introduced herself to the husband as his agent, and he said, “Over my dead body.”
She was up all night long Googling advice on how to clinch the sale.
‘Just sell the house’
In a funk, she rang her attorney friend. He gave her the best piece of advice she’d seen: “Just sell the house, Laurel.” The court signed on behalf of the husband. Problem solved — and she was hooked.
“I was fascinated by it,” she said. “I also recognized how much the family law community was uninformed about real estate. I see it as my job and mission to educate lawyers and judges.”
Almost ten years after that first harrowing sale, Starks has done over $120 million in divorce sales and has been involved in more than 1,000 cases. Up until 2013, divorce cases comprised about 95 percent of her business.
Hone skills to generate referrals
These days, the Keller Williams expansion team leader, who leads the Starks Realty Group based in Rancho Cucamonga, serving Southern California, has spent hundreds of hours in divorce mediation training, collaborative divorce training and mediation team training.
This is why divorce attorney Pamela Edwards-Swift of Edwards-Swift & Associates feeds Starks a steady flow of referrals.
“She walks the walk,” said Edwards-Swift. “Other agents come to me and try to use [their interest in divorce real estate] as a marketing tool. Laurel has really put her entire being into what she does.”
The attorney added that Starks’s staff is trained to deal with difficult issues. “They know how to jump into action. They know how to help people through the process,” she said.
Edwards-Swift had Starks sell her own house recently and was impressed.
“She really knows how to market a home — it’s not just her skills as a mediator.”
‘Establishing trust is paramount’
One of the biggest things to focus on as a divorce real estate agent is establishing trust with the client, said Starks.
In the case of a recent client, Kelly Johnson, this was a big mountain to climb. The sale of the home was decided by the courts, and Starks was referred to Johnson by her husband’s attorney — not a great recommendation, as far as Johnson was concerned.
The primary caretaker at home, Johnson said that at the time, she found it hard to trust anyone — but she ended up relying on Starks for all kinds of support, including finding her a new divorce lawyer when hers became ill.
“Agents are very neutral, but she was extraordinarily helpful, knowing my position,” said Johnson. “I didn’t know anything. She would say to me, ‘I will be here alongside you. You need to let me know what you want to learn or if you just want me to handle it,’” said Johnson.
As well as some serious hand-holding, Starks sold the family home and the investment property quickly and with little fuss, making the most of the hot market.
Would Johnson work with her again? “Any second. I have referred her, too,” she said.
“She earned my trust — I did not trust anybody,” the former client added. “There was a lot of stuff that I did not know about, that I had been kept in the dark about.”
“Establishing trust is paramount. It’s the first step, and without it, the process is a long, hard road,” said Starks.
Another rude awakening Johnson had (typical of a divorce situation) was facing the family’s finances: They were in disarray. Unbeknownst to Johnson, her husband had stopped making mortgage payments on the investment property.
Doing your due diligence on the title of the property and the financial situation is the first thing agents working with a divorce situation need to do, said Starks.
“Oftentimes, people in divorce have accumulated debt; they are in arrears on mortgage payments. Make sure you know who are the true owners of the house,” she said.
“The key is to understand that you have two parties — two sides — and your role is to remain neutral,” she added.
Starks always insists on parties meeting at her office early on — normally separately — because she wants to establish her office as neutral territory. She also makes sure she is going between the two parties equally.
“I have to be unbiased regarding the spousal conflict — and I must appear that way, too,” she wrote in a book she recently penned, “The House Matters: Untangling The Legal, Financial And Emotional Ties To The House In Divorce.”
“That means giving each partner equal attention, recognition, validation, and eye contact.”
If bias is suspected by either side, you are lost.
“Understand that you are the quarterback — you are coordinating between the parties, coordinating with attorneys, with the court,” she added.
Often, agents can inadvertently pit the two parties against each other — when communicating an offer, for instance.
“The language should be: ‘Mr. So-and-So, we have received an offer; what do you want to do?’” said Starks.
She advises ignoring the perhaps inevitable question, “Well, what has my wife said?”
Getting the best price is obviously important, but Starks said that, in her experience, “there’s more pressure to get the house sold — that’s the motivation.”
For this reason, she said, she encourages clients “to be more aggressive at times on pricing — this is a time when they need every penny.”
“My goal is to set them up with the quickest and strongest rebound financially,” she added.
Multiple deals? Maybe not
Starks points out a misconception among agents that they might get two or three deals out of a divorce.
“I would say that has happened maybe 2 percent of the time in my career because they are not in a financial position — having just come out of a divorce — and it often makes sense for people to rent for a while and collect themselves,” said Starks. “They also see me as a reminder [of the divorce], and they have shut the door on the whole thing.
“You get used to not being their favorite person,” Starks added, “and yet you still treat everyone respectfully, you still have their back, you still remain professional. What these people are going through is a living hell at the time.”
“After years of dealing with hostile and belligerent people, I’ve learned that most are being driven by fear — that wordless terror that even they may not understand. With these folks, it doesn’t help to make well-reasoned arguments. They need to be heard, reassured, and then guided toward a solution in their best interests,” wrote Starks in “The House Matters.”
When she sees former clients a year or two later, it’s like they are different people, she noted.
Books, training and a mission
Her team, now at seven, is working on more re-sales, so Starks’ breakdown now stands at 50 percent divorce work, 50 percent traditional sales — but Starks, herself, has stuck with the divorce part of the business.
Her just-finished book is set for launch on January 12.
Starks is now set on educating more agents on the subject. She has set up the Divorce Real Estate Institute and will be running courses starting in the second quarter of 2016. She plans to get certification up and running in the third quarter of 2016.
“For certification, they will come to my offices in Southern California for four days,” Starks explained. “I will take them to the family court and meet with judges in chambers.”
The agent has also set up a foundation, Starks’ Kids, to provide support services to the children of divorced parents. Proceeds from her book will go to the foundation.
“I don’t have any desire to work with traditional people,” said the happily married mother of two. “My passion is the divorce field.”
“Realtors have an opportunity to play a part in the healing of these broken families and children caught in the middle,” she added.