What happens when a divorcing couple meet a slow housing market? Usually, it’s not pretty.
by Lisa Prevost
Rebecca Lavoie spent last summer living a twisted version of The Odd Couple. The man she’d been married to for eight years was about to become her ex, but there they were, the two of them, still sharing the master bath in their spacious hillside Colonial in small-town New Hampshire. They’d decided to save money and go on living together at the same time as they were pursuing a divorce. Their home was up for sale, and as soon as it sold, they’d split the proceeds and go their separate ways. The only problem, and it was a big problem, was that the housing market was tanking. Buyers browsing in the woods of Hopkinton were suddenly so scarce that their prized five-bedroom home sat on the market, ignored, while an awkward living situation Lavoie had initially expected would last only a few weeks stretched into months.
Lavoie, a polished dresser with glossy brown hair, says she and her husband, who declined to be interviewed for this story, strived to remain civil for the sake of their two young children. Yet they gradually staked out separate territories in the once-communal family home, which made for some ridiculous scenarios. As time passed, and they went to ever-greater lengths to avoid talking to each other, “we started IMing and e-mailing between rooms,” recalls Lavoie, who moved into what had been the home office after her husband claimed the master bedroom. “I’d message him, ‘It’s really inconsiderate of you to have the television so loud when I’m trying to work.’ Or we’d work out logistical stuff, like, ‘Have you packed Henry’s lunch for tomorrow?’”
They became more guarded, hiding their cellphones so they couldn’t nose through each other’s calls, Lavoie says, and set up secret passwords to protect their individual e-mail accounts. At school concerts and other community events, they’d sit apart like a “normal” divorcing couple, only to return to forced togetherness at home. The tension might have been unbearable had Lavoie, a freelance writer who has also dabbled in public relations, not tried to focus on the comical aspects of her distorted home life. In a column last October for the local newspaper, she poked fun at herself for assuming that the troubled housing market was only a problem for other, less-fortunate types.
“Well, these days,” wrote Lavoie, 34, “I’m one of those sad sacks, with a house for sale in what can only be described as a gruesome market and a desire to sell that can only be described as, well, a little desperate.”
“DESPERATE” IS AN APT DESCRIPTION FOR ANY NUMBER of homeowner scenarios these days, as declining home values and tighter credit continue to squeeze sellers. When it comes to divorcing couples, however, the steep drop-off in housing sales is making some bad situations truly awful. Dramas are playing out across the region as couples who no longer want to stay together, but can’t afford to live apart, are winding up prisoners in their own homes. Either houserich and cash-poor, or simply overextended on all fronts, these couples are retreating to the far corners of their houses as they await the buyer who will free them.
Family law attorneys, mediators, and real estate professionals say that while this scenario isn’t necessarily new, its rising incidence is very much a sign of the times. Divorcing couples who borrowed heavily against their homes when values were soaring several years back are now scratching for enough equity to cover their mortgage, lawyer bills, and a fresh start. The financial strain is forcing more of them to stay put until the house sells, a situation that is almost always very uncomfortable.
“In a number of my cases, couples are sharing houses but using separate bedrooms, and it remains to be seen what impact all of this will have on the children,” says David A. Hoffman, an attorney, mediator, and founder of the Boston Law Collaborative.
Cohabiting during or after divorce does play out amicably for some. Lavoie insists it turned out fine for her in the end, and she even theorizes that getting used to seeing Mommy and Daddy in separate bedrooms before the actual split may have helped ease her kids into the transition. Divorce experts say that more typically, however, even when couples start out sharing nicely, the close quarters inevitably invite emotional upset and ugly clashes. “Guilt, sadness, anger, revenge – all of those things color people’s normal reactions,” says Ruth N. Bortzfield, a divorce attorney in Topsfield.
LAVOIE FIGURED SHE AND HER HUSBAND would part quickly once they’d agreed to a divorce early last summer. She would have preferred an interim “nesting” arrangement – they could take turns rotating in and out of an apartment, sharing parenting duties at home without uprooting the kids. With their mortgage and property taxes already eating up roughly half of their income, however, Lavoie says they decided they’d be financially better off staying in the house together while trying to sell it. “My lawyer told me it was a terrible idea,” she says, “but it became a question of not having a choice.” And anyway, experience suggested it would only be for a few weeks; that’s how long it had taken them to sell two other houses in the Concord area before they moved just outside the city to Hopkinton in 2003.
A chocolate-brown Colonial with black shutters, their house sat at the front of a deep, pine-shaded lot on a quiet cul-de-sac. They had upgraded the interior, replacing the old kitchen counters with granite and tearing up carpeting to refinish the wood floors. Back when buyers were still begging to get into the market, an out-of-towner cruising the area had posted a note on their front door urging them to call if they wanted to sell. (They didn’t at the time, and much to Lavoie’s later regret, the note ended up in the trash.)
Their real estate agent, Brian Jolicoeur, of Cowan & Zellers, warned them that the market had cooled, but they ignored him and priced the house at $499,000, well above his recommendation. Then they waited. Without so much as a nibble after three months, they reluctantly lowered the price to $475,000. There was no denying that things had changed. “We had an open house, and nobody came,” Lavoie says. “That was embarrassing.”
Divorce lawyers say that, given market conditions, many couples are putting off selling the family house if they can possibly afford it. Those that must sell in order to move on with their lives can have a tough time downsizing their expectations. Kathryn O’Brien, a North Shore real estate agent who specializes in divorce situations, has watched countless clients go through this – she calls it “their period of pain.” Sometimes it can take weeks of being stuck – unable to buy or rent another place, unable to move out, unhappy living together – before they will take her advice and price their property more reasonably.
Because she deals primarily with referrals from attorneys, O’Brien often finds herself in the middle of acrimonious divorces in which the couples would never even consider remaining under the same roof. “Many times, they can’t even be in the same room together,” she says. Not too long ago, however, she did list a home for a divorcing couple still living together, and she noticed something interesting. When it came to showing the property, she found that the couple’s cohabitation gave them an advantage over couples living separately. Buyers are more shameless than ever when it comes to snooping around for signs of a seller in distress, with divorce being a big red flag, and “if they feel that the seller is in trouble, they’ll come in with a low offer,” O’Brien says. “Buyers are so savvy now – they will go into the closet and see if the husband’s clothes are in there. I’ve seen it over and over again.”
Even if proper pricing and keeping his-and-hers clothes in the bedroom closet helps on the marketing end, however, it can’t compensate for receding home values. As president/broker of Towne & Country Realtors in Leominster, Gerry Bourgeois sees the heavy toll the declining market is taking on divorcing couples who bought their homes as recently as two or three years ago, or borrowed away most of their equity. With single-family home values having fallen 20 percent or more from the first quarter of 2007 to 2008 in some areas, many are stuck with houses worth less than what they owe their lender. Those are usually the cases, Bourgeois says, where the “husband is living in the basement, and the wife is living upstairs.”
Couples in this situation who are desperate to cut ties have a few other options, but none of them are pretty. They can sell at a loss, which means they will wind up at the settlement table dividing up the deficiency instead of parceling out assets. If they are so in debt that they can’t keep up with their mortgage payments, they may try to negotiate a “short sale,” in which their lender agrees to accept less than the house is worth, there-by saving the owners from foreclosure. (“I’m seeing a lot of this – it’s unfortunate,” says O’Brien.) The least ruinous way out would be to refinance the mortgage, with one spouse keeping the house and buying out the other. Unfortunately, in the wake of tighter lending standards, it is also the least likely outcome for couples with money problems.
“Unless you have lots of equity or really good credit, it’s tough,” says Robert Loss, the owner of Comprehensive Mortgage Co., a Woburn firm that handles referrals from divorce mediators. “Some people are just forced to financially stay where they are. Some people are not able to do anything.”
Barbara Shapiro, a certified divorce financial analyst and vice president of HMS Financial Group in Dedham, agrees that the sliding market is forcing more divorcing couples to remain housemates. The cases she sees typically fall into one of two categories. “You have the couple that’s already divorced and had decided they were going to split the house once it’s sold. And they can’t sell it, or it doesn’t make sense to sell it. So they’re scrambling to adjust,” she says. “And then there are people who are saying, ‘We can’t get divorced – we can’t afford it.’”
The latter sentiment turned up unexpectedly in a divorce case handled last year by Steven Ballard, a lawyer in Worcester and Wellesley. He was representing a woman in particularly bleak circumstances: She had a restraining order against her husband, who had moved back in with his mother. The wife worked but couldn’t cover the mortgage payments and expenses on their house without her husband’s income. Because they owed more than the house was worth, foreclosure loomed as a possibility. Still, Ballard didn’t see taking the husband back as an option. Much to his dismay, his client did. The couple reconciled. “I’d seen financial problems lead to divorce,” Ballard says, “but I hadn’t seen it save a marriage.”
LAVOIE’S FAMILY BALANCE SHEET WASN’T nearly so out of whack. Rather, her uncertainty revolved solely around the market waiting game – the longer she had to live in the house with her husband, the more she wanted out. The atmosphere at home became hyper-charged, magnifying annoying habits and imbuing minor oversights with ill intent.
Lavoie had begun living more like she was the only adult in the house. She all but stopped cooking nightly meals, instead buying a lot of prepared foods for the kids and just foraging in the refrigerator for herself. Most mornings, she made coffee for one. “I just stopped thinking about whether he’d want it,” she says, “because we didn’t have those conversations anymore, like, ‘Should I make enough for you?’”
Jolicoeur, their agent, says the couple were always very cordial in his dealings with them. Scheduling showings wasn’t a problem, as they were both cooperative. Lavoie agrees that, for the most part, they managed to control their emotions.
The ability to hold it together for so long – a total of six months in Lavoie’s case – is highly unusual among the clients Diane Neumann sees in her Boston-area mediation practice. Even though couples choosing mediation tend to be fairly cooperative, that doesn’t necessarily make them good candidates for sharing living space. In the majority of cases Neumann works on, one of the people involved is having an affair. “So people try living together for a while, but what happens usually is one person starts seeing somebody,” Neumann says. “One person is ready to be single, and the other one still considers themselves married.” She doesn’t encourage couples to stay in the same house for that reason. “I know it’s going to blow up soon.”
Cohabiting generally works best for couples without children – some lawyers say they’ve seen such couples live together for months after their divorce is final if the house still hasn’t sold. When kids are involved, however, they typically urge couples to do almost anything else – move in with parents or friends (though maybe not a lover) if they can’t afford an apartment, rather than go on living in the guise of a nuclear family. “Kids have exquisitely sensitive antennae for conflict,” says Hoffman. “And it’s unnerving for them.” Couples that aren’t able to send one spouse packing any farther than the au pair suite can reduce the at-home stress level, he says, by negotiating a schedule of coverage for the kids and learning how to de-escalate conflict.
Lavoie is relieved that her own odd odyssey has come to an end. The house finally sold for $460,000 in December, giving her enough of a return to make a down payment on a small ranch. It’s funny how things turned out, she says. That big Colonial once looked so desirable, the symbol of their aspirations for family, financial stability, roots in a community. When the marriage was over, however, the house’s importance quickly faded. And when it wouldn’t sell, it became a burden, the last thing holding her in a place where she no longer wanted to be. “Having that be the albatross at the very end,” Lavoie says with a chuckle, “well, it was really very ironic.”
Lisa Prevost is a freelance writer in Connecticut and a frequent contributer to the Globe Magazine. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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