A young professional gets a promotion and decides to invest in her first home purchase. A couple discovers they are having a baby and begins looking for more space. Retirement propels Mom and Dad into simpler living, closer to all the action.
We know that life events are a major driver of real estate decisions, but some are happier than others.
A couple in the middle of a divorce is often looking to offload a home and look for separate residences that will accommodate themselves and, depending on custody arrangements, their children.
For a real estate agent, there is clearly a business opportunity there. But how do you market and serve this population without coming across as, at best, insensitive, or worse, exploitative?
I talked to experts who work with divorcing couples to find out some best practices for navigating this emotional territory. Here’s what I learned.
Real estate needs of divorcing couples
Divorcing couples have some unique needs when it comes to real estate; the most important of these is maximization of equity.
Essentially, clients in these circumstances will be looking to use the equity of one home to finance two homes. This can be further complicated if one of the partners wishes to stay in the current family home.
In that case, it may be difficult to find the financial resources to both pay for the current home and establish a second home.
In addition, speed of settlement can be a major hurdle. To finalize the divorce, the disposition of the marital assets may need to be finalized. This may mean that the home needs to be sold or the equity split before the divorce can be completed.
In a slow market, a home sale can take months or even years. Lowering the price for a quick sale is probably not an option due to the need to maximize the home’s value. Thus a Catch-22 can emerge and keep both parties in limbo until the home is finally sold.
Keeping a level head in emotional territory
One of the most difficult aspects of working with divorcing couples is, fairly obviously, the feelings associated with the divorce itself.
According to Alabama divorce attorney Charlotte Christian of Charlotte Christian Law, “Many times during a divorce, the parties hate each other. They do not get along, or they would not be divorcing. Although working together is nearly impossible, I always encourage my clients to work together on the real estate.”
Of course, if one of the owners does not want the divorce or is experiencing a lot of anger, the home and the home sale process can become a vessel for expressing frustration and even aggression against the other partner.
Christian says, “If one party does not want to sell and does everything possible to keep the real estate from selling, for example, sabotaging showings or damaging property, the ultimate loss will flow through to both parties.”
Of course, sometimes the problems are less aggressive but just as damaging to the the home sale process.
One partner who is unrealistic about the home’s value or condition, for example, can undermine or discourage offers and potential contracts, thus delaying the sale of the home and, ultimately, the final divorce decree.
‘Never assume anything’
Real estate agents and other professionals who work with divorcing couples can be of great help in facilitating a healthy and productive process to the extent possible.
“I find that compassion, understanding and patience is necessary in helping couples through this difficult process,” said John Barone, an attorney and family law mediator with Barone Law Firm in New Jersey.
Providing options to clients can help them problem-solve rather than getting hung up over a one-size-fits-all solution, Barone said.
As an agent, you might run through a variety of scenarios with the couple and evaluate markets that could work for their budget and their new circumstances.
For some couples, keeping the kids in their current schools may be the top priority for the new home. For others, getting a fresh start in a new neighborhood will help.
See the clients as individuals, and help tailor solutions that fit their individual needs.
“The best advice I can give agents in these scenarios is never assume anything,” said broker-associate David Welch with Re/Max 200 in Winter Park, Florida. “Always check with both parties, and always treat each of them equally.
“Many times when you are working with a couple, you will find that one of them is ‘in charge’ of the transaction, and you can run things by them without checking with the partner. In a divorce situation that would be a big ‘no-no’ in my opinion.”
When you do need to have the parties together in the same room, try to limit the interaction. Renowned therapist and communications expert Karol Ward offers some great advice for working with divorcing couples.
- Set time limits for joint meetings: “60 to 90 minutes would be optimal,” Ward said.
- Have an agenda: Alternate agenda items between neutral — repairs or staging — and emotional — closing date, packing, etc. Send the agenda to each party ahead of time.
- Create emotional space: There are bound to be emotions, and the agent can allow for those feelings to be expressed occasionally — as long as you stay calm and professional, Ward said. However, “If things escalate, end the meeting in a civil way-for all parties. Reschedule for another time.”
- Do not mediate: Ward said, while each party may vent to you as the agent, your language should remain neutral, and you should avoid at all costs stating how you feel or offering advice outside the realm of your real estate expertise.
Niche marketing to divorcing couples
Sensitivity is required in marketing to this group, and real estate agents would do well to think through their message before attempting to overtly market to divorcing couples.
“Marketing that speaks to the various emotions experienced during divorce are likely to be successful, but should be sensitive as well,” said therapist Bethany Raab of Raab Counseling.
Remember, not everyone is angry or sad or happy about their divorce. People experience divorce differently, and even the couple may experience it differently. Acknowledging the emotional component and emphasizing your awareness and understanding of the issues they are facing can help you establish trust with both spouses.
Being an agent who understands their unique needs and can communicate effectively, facilitate the transaction competently, and interact with each partner with sensitivity and compassion will not only create a better business, but will also be doing a real service to families undergoing a difficult and painful event.