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Navigating divorce listings: Challenges, strategies and the role of realtors in handling hostile property sales

If you’ve listed a property for a couple locking horns in a hostile divorce, you know it’s not a job for the fainthearted or inexperienced.

In some cases, you may merely witness a little bickering. Alternatively, you’ll watch plates fly. One agent describes leaving a couple alone together for 10 minutes and returning to find they’d called the police on each other. 

Your communication and conflict resolution skills are put to the test, setting boundaries and convincing two people who agree on virtually nothing to come to terms long enough to get the best financial outcome possible. 

“Emotion makes people do stupid things,” says Toronto-based Re/Max agent and divorce specialist, Michael Shuster. “I won’t take the listing if I think one spouse will tie it up in court for years.” 


Remain neutral and stay professional: “You cannot pick sides”


In less extreme situations, Shuster may recommend that clients try a settlement conference or get a detailed court order, outlining specifics such as the percentage below asking price that will be accepted by both parties. Mostly though, he handles things himself, laying the groundwork with the help of a collaborative agreement signed by the couple setting out terms for the sale.

He maintains that it’s the realtor’s job to remain neutral and keep things professional. “You cannot get emotionally involved,” says Shuster. “You cannot pick sides.”

And even then, many agents say that one party may feel you favour the other.


Extra work, extra complication


Divorce listings differ from regular transactions. They may involve more work and more complications. These complications extend to protocols in all areas, right down to deciding not to use a lockbox, as these could potentially traumatize a divorcing couple’s children. “It’s important to minimize triggers,” Shuster advises.

Along with intense negative emotions and potential court orders, you may run into situations where one spouse tries to sabotage or delay the sale. Or each spouse might hire their own independent experts. So, you wind up with a double whammy of assorted professionals — two real estate lawyers, two or more licensed appraisers, two financial advisors, two divorce lawyers, etc. — and all the extra emailing that entails. 

You may be part of a double whammy yourself, agreeing to co-list with another realtor if the parties distrust each other so much that they each insist on their own representation. 

Empathy and patience are essential. “You’re kind of doing everything twice,” says Anthony Riglietti of Oakwyn Realty in Vancouver. “You’re hearing both sides. Remember, you’re not their psychiatrist.”


Communicate fully and carefully


Keeping both parties on the same page is also key. “Or there’ll be issues,” he cautions. 

That includes keeping both aware of all showing requests, even if one spouse is no longer living there. Document everything meticulously, in case you wind up in court. Stick with clear, consistent wording. 

“Always communicate at the same time and with the same words with both parties, using the same comments to each. I use copy and paste or a screenshot,” says Riglietti.


Divorce listings can be stigmatizing for buyers


Marketing must also be handled with extra care, as it’s stigmatizing for potential buyers to know they’re dealing with a divorce listing. “That’s like blood in the water,” Riglietti insists.

But keeping this information under wraps can be tricky. One agent recalls asking a woman to bring her clothes back to the house, in hopes that having her items there as well as her husband’s would prevent potential buyers from realizing that she’d moved out. 

She refused.

So, the agent spun various tall tales until one day the story was that the woman had recently started a job at Lululemon in another city. To this, someone viewing the property responded, “Lululemon doesn’t have an office there.” 



Sound advice from a lawyer


While it’s generally agreed that you don’t need to volunteer the divorce narrative, it’s best to avoid fibbing about it, says Salima Virani, with Blue Letter Law in Toronto. Virani is a realtor as well as a lawyer, so she’s doubly well-versed in the nuts and bolts of divorce listings. She suggests responding to prying questions with, “We don’t discuss clients’ private situations.”

She advises that realtors should also:

  • Determine whether the couple is married or common law. Depending on the province, a common law marriage may not bestow property rights. (This is the case in Ontario, for instance.)
  • Find out if the property was the matrimonial home at the time of separation. If so, even if one party is not on title and the couple has been separated and living apart for years, both may have a claim on it.

“Do your due diligence,” counsels Virani. “It’s imperative to establish contact with both parties, be transparent and send emails and offers to both parties. If both are on title or only one, spousal consent is still needed to divest the matrimonial home.”


Legal issues don’t end once the offer is signed


“Make sure the lawyer is jointly approved by both parties,” Virani cautions. “And if the deposit exceeds the commission, don’t just cut a cheque to each party.”

Instead, she advises transferring the risk by telling the clients that you’ll accept direction on the split from a lawyer. 


The ultimate goal: “Get divorced quickly and live well”


Although divorce deals can be challenging, “It’s where you get to show why it’s worth using a realtor,” asserts Ontario-based Re/Max agent, Steven Sarasin. In some markets in recent years, without divorces, deaths and such, there’d have been little movement in real estate, he observes.

Sarasin has noticed an increase in divorce sales in the senior population.

“These older clients are easier to deal with. They tend to be more mature. They’re not causing drama on social media.”

Divorcing clients of all ages may fight bitterly over choosing a realtor though. Long-time divorce real estate expert Barry Lebow, with Weiss Realty in Toronto, finds that one of the biggest issues for agents in this arena is that pickings may be slim unless you’re “being fed clients by divorce lawyers,” as he is. The reason? If you’re referred by one spouse, the other will almost automatically reject you.

“The more a couple fights over the real estate, the more their legal and other professional bills increase and their walk-away money decreases,” continues Lebow. Clients need to find a realtor “who understands this process” and can help them navigate it successfully. 

As he tells his clients, their ultimate goal should be “to get divorced quickly and live well.”