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May 27, 2020 | Family Law

Selling your home while divorcing: helpful insight from an experienced real estate professional


By Erin Fitch Nielson with Patty Sutherland, Keller Williams Realty Boston Northwest

I’ve been a divorce lawyer for over fifteen years – 100% of the home sellers I am working with are ½ of a divorcing couple. Early in my career, I saw many home selling processes undermined as a result of challenges specific to families in crisis.

For example, I have seen one party list the house without knowledge of the other; one party interfere with preparing the house for sale by refusing to clean up or pay for necessary repairs; one party get in the way of showings; one party refuse to accept bona fide offers to purchase the home…the list goes on! Unfortunately, divorcing couples sometimes struggle to get the most out of what for many is the largest asset in the marital estate. 

In my practice, if the parties are not in agreement about what will happen with the marital home, I look to avoid these issues in two ways.  First, I work to create as comprehensive a road  map as possible for how the sale of the home will be handled – including issues like how decisions about repairs/improvements will be made and paid for, rules around showings, and outlining how disagreements about offers and the purchase and sale agreement will be resolved.  Hopefully, this can be accomplished by agreement.  However, in the cases where these “rules” are needed most, agreement often is not possible and a court order is required.

Second, and just as important, I look for a real estate professional who has the skill set necessary to work with families in crisis and the ability to keep the process moving forward.

One such real estate professional is Patty Sutherland of Keller Williams Realty Boston Northwest.  Patty took some time to answer my questions about the home selling process that come up for my clients. To learn more about Patty, please visit her website here.

Watch the video below for some helpful insight.

Erin:  What should people who can anticipate their home selling process may be challenging be looking for in a real estate agent?

Patty:  Good question, Erin.  I would argue that it is important for a divorcing couple to EXPECT their home sale to be challenging even if they can’t imagine it being so at the start of the process.  

Preparing a home for sale and charting the course for an effective marketing plan that results in the greatest amount of sales proceeds within a reasonable time frame is hard work in the best of times.  When a couple is working toward a divorce agreement, there is emotional and financial upheaval associated with the home.  A couple’s home is often the most highly valued asset in their overall financial portfolio. We’re speaking about a marital asset. This perspective gains a greater focus in a divorce, and adds a layer of complexity to the transaction.

It is more important than ever to select a real estate agent who has experience working with a range of complex transactions, and difficult family dynamics, including separation and divorce.  While married couples don’t always see “eye-to-eye” at every decision-point, they typically have a shared financial goal in mind as they move together to the next home.  The married couple is typically more excited than fearful about their future.  Separating couples often have divergent financial interests. One or both may be experiencing feelings of fear and uncertainty about what is next.  This can lead to mistrust and anger, and a sense of urgency perceived by prospective buyers who are looking to “get a deal” at the expense of the divorcing couple. 

The real estate agent often doubles as a mediator and must have strong communication skills. The real estate agent must have the ability to maintain a balanced, focused and compassionate approach that maintains a level of calm through the process. 

Your clients want to look for:  experience with complex transactions, financial acumen, strong communication skills, process-orientation, emotional intelligence, and a sense of calm.

Erin:  What is the first thing you do with a family when they contact you?

Patty:  I begin with a consultation – many times, at the subject home, at the kitchen table. 

You mentioned that the first thing you do is work toward the creation of a comprehensive road map for the sale process.  Similarly, I start by discussing and reviewing the details of sale process with my sellers, from start to finish.  My objective is to give them a heads up regarding all that they need to consider throughout the process.  I am setting the stage for what is to come.

 The average family moves every 7 to 10 years.  I work on real estate transactions every day. This is what I do for a living.  I do not want to make any assumptions about what people know and don’t know about the details of the process and the decisions that need to be made along the way.  I have a seller’s road map that I share.  Most sellers are surprised how complicated the process is, and how may decisions need to be made from the start of home preparation to moving day.

The conversation about the process can last 45 minutes to an hour depending upon how many questions the sellers have.  All questions are good questions.  I encourage people to continue to think of questions and share them with me – even after I have left the home. This helps to validate the process, and to allow conversations to happen after I leave the home.

Once we’re finished speaking at the kitchen table, I ask for a tour of the home.  During the tour, I ask lots of questions about the home – both physical attributes about the home, and what they enjoy about the home.  I take this information back to my desk and begin to prepare a comparative market analysis to establish a price range to consider for when a list price needs to be established.

Erin:  Divorcing families need to understand the value of their home up front to make decisions about what to do with it.  How can you help families with that?

Patty:  By completing a comparative market analysis.

Erin:  Can you talk a little about the difference between a market analysis and an appraisal?

Patty:  A comparative market analysis is completed by a licensed real estate agent when considering a list price for the home.  The analysis takes into account the location, condition, age and features of the home and compares this with other similar homes, that is “comparable homes”, in the same geographic area.  The resultant price range or list price relates specifically to the current market conditions, and is a “forecast” of the market value. The actual amount a buyer is willing to pay for the home in the current market is the market value, assuming that the home is marketed and sold in an arms-length transaction.

An appraisal is completed by a professional, licensed appraiser for a variety of reasons. When it comes to the sale of a property, a third-party appraisal is ordered by the buyer’s lender once a purchase and sale agreement has been signed.  The appraised value is the value that the bank or mortgage company considers when they are evaluating the risks associated with the amount of the loan the buyer has requested. Appraisers use a number of methods to evaluate the appraised value.  Comparable homes are one of the most important factors affecting the appraised value.  The appraisal process tends to be more mathematical and defines a fair market value for a specific home on a specific date.  The appraiser is a neutral third party with no vested interest in the outcome of the sale, and thus spends less time focused on the market dynamics that may occur during the sale process.

Erin:  When thinking about how much equity they have in the marital home, what do sellers need to make sure they account for?

Patty:  Mortgage pay-off; home equity line of credit pay-off; any outstanding taxes, town fees or mechanic’s liens placed on the home; the cost of any necessary repairs or preparation (as advised by a real estate agent); staging costs;  Title 5 septic system inspection costs;  possible home warranty costs;  and closing costs (real estate commissions, transfer tax, title exam and insurance costs, legal documents and services fees, and recording/filing fees.)

Erin:  In terms of getting the house ready for sale, what are you currently recommending buyers do?

Patty:  Homes that sell at the highest possible price and within the most reasonable time frames can be described as: fresh, clean, well-maintained, and with as few upfront costs as possible for the buyer.  Neutral décor (e.g., paint colors) has the ability to cast the widest net of buyers.  Highly stylized décor tends to minimize the pool of buyers.  Keeping in mind that buyers often stretch their budget to purchase the home of their dreams, a home that is “move-in ready” and “worry-free” is the most attractive.  It is important to establish a budget and to prioritize projects based upon what buyers want.

Erin:  How do you help people figure out what they need to do to get their house ready to sell?

Patty:  I begin to make suggestions during the first visit to the home.  I provide a pre-staging consultation that further identifies suggestions to create a home atmosphere that is appealing to a large pool of buyers.  Success leaves clues.  Often times reviewing photos of the homes in the list of comparable sales is most enlightening in terms of what sells a home.

Erin: What, if anything, do you do to facilitate that process?

Patty: I provide suggestions upon first meeting, at the pre-staging consultation stage, and have also brought in contractors to provide estimates to assist with the prioritization of projects.  I have a long list of local resources to offer my sellers.  Of course, there is the option of simply cleaning the home professionally, and selling it “as-is” at a lower list price.

Erin:  How do you handle the emotional dynamics that can come along with working with divorcing couples?

Patty:  With mutual care, compassion and respect.  Good listening skills.  Honesty.  Focusing on the facts of the situation.  Asking the question, “Do you want my opinion?” when it is appropriate for me to share my opinion.  Reminding the couple of the types of decisions I can guide them through, and which are not my place to discuss.  Reminding them that we’re on the same team, and that we are positioned on the opposite side of the table from a willing buyer – not each other.  Engaging with the various professionals that are involved in the process as well, e.g., the real estate attorney, the financial planner, the contractors working on the home.  We are a team with a job to do. It helps that it is not my home or my relationship, so it is easier to remain emotionally detached.

Erin:  Can it present any particular ethical issues for you?

Patty:  Every real estate transaction has the potential for ethical issues.  This is why it’s important for there to be mutual care, compassion and respect between me and my clients.  I have been hired by contract to sell the home.  My duties as a real estate agent include:  undivided loyalty, obedience in following lawful instructions, reasonable care and diligence to protect my clients from harm, confidentiality, and full disclosure of material facts that may impact the decision-making of my clients or the buyers of the home.  When the motivations of two people owning a piece of property are divergent, then the opportunity for issues exists.

If you are going through a divorce or are contemplating a divorce and have any questions regarding the sale of your home, please feel free to reach out to the experienced family law attorneys at Wilchins Cosentino & Novins LLP at 781-235-5500 or schedule a phone call here.

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