Selling a House Under Stress

By Harold DeBlander

Photo by Ross Joyner on Unsplash

Selling a house can be hard. Selling it while divorcing, even tougher. Add to that the stress of dealing with a national health crisis, and we’re talking about the balancing act of the year.

Before Covid-19, inventory in the San Francisco Bay Area was tight and now it’s even more so. During the week of March 19, when we were ordered to shelter in place, the number of on-hold properties shot through the roof, up 1,500% over the same week a year ago. Many sellers decided to wait until the health crisis blows over.  Now we’re seeing movement, not just here but across the country.  In Manhattan, real estate prices are up post-lockdown by as much as 7 percent over the previous year, and according to The New York Times  other major cities are reporting a strong seller’s market.    

Last night, I woke at 4 a.m. thinking about the challenges Americans are about to face as the nation reopens.  How will we do business? Will we homeschool our kids this fall?  Will we see further changes in the housing supply?  

Divorcing couples will have to adjust to the new normal while coping with volatile emotions (anger, grief and betrayal),  heart-rending problems of child custody, and escalating financial pressures. 

As a Certified Divorce Real Estate Expert™ I  help my clients navigate this rocky terrain.  Here are some guidelines for couples who will be separating and selling a home in the months ahead. 

Get the Right Help

Many agents jump into divorce real estate with dollar signs in their eyes and visions of multiple transactions. “I’ll sell the family house, and help both ex-spouses find their new place!” The reality is very different. I’ve seen many agents overwhelmed by the storm of conflict, uncertainty, and legal roadblocks associated with divorce.

One of my clients fired her previous real estate firm after a serious miscommunication. Following the traditional playbook, a reputable agent put a “For Sale / Coming Soon” sign in front of the house a few days after signing the listing agreement.  She was highly motivated and ready to gather buyer leads. Business as usual, right?

Well, in this case the client had not yet the conversation —“Your dad and I getting a divorce”— with her kids. They had no idea why their father wasn’t in the picture anymore or why they were about to lose their beloved home. 

This kind of crisis can be avoided if you work with a Real Estate Divorce Expert. 

Every other part of the divorce is supported by specialists—from lawyers to mediators to financial experts.  Now you can add a new member to your team.  Professionals like me can orchestrate a house sale without bias and with a great deal of sensitivity.

For a referral contact the Ilumni Institute, the nation’s premier training organization for Real Estate Divorce Experts or  access a national directory here.

Don't Make Your House an Afterthought

While the house is the main asset for most families, it’s often not addressed until the end of the divorce process.  Custody issues come up early, as do concerns for safety. Then after that, the sale of the real property.

As a Real Estate Divorce Expert, I start working with clients early on and then keep checking in as their situation unfolds.  I operate from the premise that the home is not just an asset, but a primary attachment — the place where the children are being raised and that binds a couple to a particular neighborhood or community.  Unravelling this structure is never easy and this task should be approached with care.

A real estate divorce specialist knows not only how to value and market a home but how to cope with the practical and emotional aspects of dismantling it.  

Be Aware of Different Pacing

In my profession, we talk about the in-spouse (the one who stays in the home) and the out-spouse (the one who leaves).  These two people are often on different timetables when it comes to letting go of a house. 

Here’s a typical scenario, though the gender roles may vary. The wife—I’ll call her Karen— had no idea there was anything wrong. The husband, Bob, had  been planning to leave the marriage for some time.Things couldn’t happen fast enough for him and he was ready to list the house before divorce papers were filed.

Often the in-spouse has to deal with a sudden shock or surprise—and is dealing with things at a much slower pace.  Karen had given up her career to care for two young children.  Now she had to wrestle with career issues and finances. At the same time she was thinking: Where am I going to move next?  Will my kids be able to see their friends?  How will a divorce affect my status in the community? 

Divorcing couples may be on completely different schedules. If you can learn to match your pacing and your expectations, it will be easier to sell your house.

I discovered how important timing is when handling my very first divorce case, years ago.  Former clients were separating and asked to put their house on the market.  But the in-spouse was unconsciously sabotaging the sale. Whenever I tried to schedule a showing, something would come up. The dog was sick. The house wasn’t ready. 

Where others may have thrown the towel and moved on to easier, more traditional transactions, I was determined to understand the psychological aspects of this situation.  In the months ahead, I started taking seminars in mediation, conflict resolution, and collaborative divorce.  With this training, I learned how to help a couple manage their different pacing, get on the same page, and make it to the finish line without so many missteps.

PHoto by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Find Common Ground

At a seminar held by the Collaborative Practice Group, I discovered how important it is to be a good mediator. One of our presenters had been a negotiator in the Balkans helping people who had lived through genocide. He’d also worked with the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda. After telling us how he managed to get people who had killed each other with rifles or machetes to sit down at the same table, he taught us how to use similar skills with a divorcing couple.

What was the key? To search for commonalities. The essence of this work was figuring out how to get people to settle their affairs, and how to make them as comfortable as possible.

In another workshop, we did a role-playing exercise. I was a doctor who worked long hours, providing for the family.  My hobby was car racing and I bought Ferraris.  The races and the cars drove my spouse crazy and she wanted me to get rid of them, as we moved through the divorce.  But I dug in, hanging onto those cars for dear life because I’d worked so hard to get them.  While I know nothing about cars, I got deeply into this man’s psyche.

The collaborative divorce coach then put a beautiful picture of “our children” on a table and this experience was transformative.  Suddenly I thought, “I am a dad, I love these children more than anything.” I knew then what was going to keep us moving forward — the well-being of the kids.

What I got from this simple training exercise was a way to shift the energy, to help a couple go from feeling rigid and defensive to focusing on one thing they value. 

The advantage of the collaborative process — working with attorneys and real estate divorce experts trained in this — is that you’ll have allies who can help you find your common ground.  

Be Patient with the Courts

The courts will face a backlog of civil cases as they reopen, and so it will take longer for divorces to get on the docket.  

A family law judge recently told me, “With the court’s partial closure, we won’t have the capacity to work through every single order.  We can only look at the most urgent matters. You are going to have to work more collaboratively with your clients.

Collaborative divorce and mediation can be welcome solutions. To learn more about this approach, listen to the podcast,  Divorce in the Time of Corona.   

Keep Track of Tougher Lending Guidelines

COVID-19 has also changed the landscape of the lending process. 

Normally, when a loan is approved, papers go to the title company,  our clients sign them in the presence of a notary, and 24 hours later they receive the loan.

Borrowers used to feel safe as soon as they signed the documents. Yet things can still change at the last minute.  Some things to remember:

  • A reduction in work hours can lead to an alteration in your loan amount.
  • If you have rental properties and are counting on that income, lenders may look for the cleared checks in your bank account.  
  • Your loan can be revised at any point. 

Trust the Process of Homecoming

Throughout history, we’ve been concerned with the theme of homecoming.  In Greek myth,  the hero Theseus struggles to make his way through the Cretan labyrinth, slay the minotaur, and return to his native Athens. How does he manage?  Ariadne gives him a skein of thread that shows him where to go at every twist and turn.

If you’re divorcing, your journey, too, may feel like a heroic challenge. Yet with the right help, you can make it safely through the maze and find your way back home.   


Harold DeBlander is a Certified Divorce Real Estate Expert, and an associate with Sotheby’s International Realty in San Francisco, Marin, and San Mateo. He is known for handling property cases involving probate and family law, and for resolving high conflict situations, including domestic violence and uncooperative spouses. Harold has also been trained in Collaborative Practice.


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