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Selling Your House When You're Divorcing

Unfortunately, you may have to sell your house as part of your divorce. This page is all about how to get top dollar for your house, even when you're in the midst of a divorce.

Make it clear that you and your spouse are divorcing. Remember when you were shopping for a house? You wanted to know, if this is such a great house and it's in such a great neighborhood, why do these people want out? When potential buyers know you're divorcing, you answer that question for them without their having to ask.

I sometimes hear people say you shouldn't say you are divorcing, because people will give you a lowball price. I disagree. I think people will be more likely to give you a price if they know why you're selling.

Gather information. there's some information that prospective purchasers will be interested in and curious about, even if they don't come out and say so. I recommend you gather all this information and put it together in a notebook that you label clearly (for example, "Useful Information About This House - Please Feel Free to Read" and leave in a highly visible surface like the kitchen counter or a table in the foyer. You should have the following information in your notebook:

  • Copies of property tax payments and/or condominium fees for the last year
  • Loan balance, loan account number, monthly payment, interest rate, and terms of assumption, if any
  • List of personal property that will stay with the house (for example, ceiling fans, window treatments, lawn tractor, etc.), and a list of personal property that will not stay with the house.
  • Bylaws of any homeowners' association or condominium association to which you belong
  • Description of any unresolved defects (talk to your real estate agent about what you will eventually be required to disclose, and disclose it now). If you have a problem you know about and don't intend to correct, such as a settling foundation or a damp basement, you might as well come clean about it.
  • Utility bills for the last year (preferably with a summary list of the amounts)
  • List of all the energy efficiency features your house includes, such as double pane windows, extra insulation, and passive solar design, together with any information you have about the utility savings from these changes.
  • List of security features your house includes, such as deadbolt locks, security system, and changes in landscaping.
  • List of other features about your house that you consider appealing, such as built-in appliances, extra closets, whirlpool, hardwood floors, etc. Before you post this list, though, make sure your real estate agent looks it over. That innovative laundry room design you developed may seem quirky and just plain weird to the rest of the world; and it may be best not to call attention to it.
  • Description of the landscaping around the house, and the recommendations for its proper care.
  • Description of any warranties still in effect for your house or any equipment that will stay with it.
  • Termite inspection certificate or bond.
  • Floor plan if you have it.
  • Survey if you have it.
  • Title insurance policy.
  • Professional appraisal of your property if you have it.
  • Map of the area around your house showing the location of your house in relation to schools, shopping, transportation, and parks.
  • If your neighborhood is strong and stable, talk a little about it. Mention how many families have people at home during the day, how many children of what ages live nearby, etc. Avoid specifics about neighbors, though. Almost no one appreciates having their name, address, or family circumstances provided to strangers.

Present a United Front to Potential Buyers

Even though people can handle knowing you're divorcing, the last thing they want to do is to step into a conflict between the two owners of the house they want to buy. I usually recommend that you and your spouse agree on who is going to have the contact with the realtor and potential buyers. Keep the other spouse out of the picture entirely. Keep it simple for real estate agents and buyers.

Think Commodity.

This is your home, where your dreams and your children have grown up together. I know it may be agonizing for you to part with it. I also know that those crayon marks in the hall may be part of a precious memory for you. Get over it. Your house is a commodity, and you need to move it.

What does this mean? It means you are merciless about appealing to all and offending none. It means you detach yourself from your house and listen to other people's advice about what you need to do to sell it.

This does not mean you should spend a lot of money getting your house ready to sell. To the contrary, you should avoid expensive improvements unless there's no question they're needed (for example, a new roof if you actually have leaks).

Now, having just told you that your house is a commodity, I have to add that part of selling this commodity is creating an image for the people who are considering buying it. Real estate agents say that buyers have to imagine themselves living in a house.

By all accounts, repainting is often one of the least expensive and most effective improvements you can make. Concentrate on neutral colors. This is not a time for creativity, and it's not a time to say (as too many sellers do), "I know this needs repainting, but I'll let the new buyer decide what color." Go ahead and paint it beige so it looks fresh, open, and clean. The buyer can always add the lime base and chartreuse accent borders later.

Changes to your floors are usually more expensive, so you should make them sparingly. If your linoleum is buckling in the kitchen, replace it. If it's just boring, leave it alone.

Carpeting is a special challenge. Most people leave their carpeting in too long before replacing it. If your carpeting is getting worn, it may be time for an inexpensive neutral colored replacement. Remember, the sellers need to be able to imagine themselves living in the house. It's hard for your eyes to mist over with delightful anticipation when they're locked on cat doo stains on the rug. Get it?

Everything needs to work. Go through the house and methodically tighten loose hardware, replace loose or missing doorstops, and oil hinges and doorknobs. Replace or repair leaky faucets and toilets. 

Set the Right Price

Part of treating your house as a commodity is pricing it to move. You may think you already know what houses in your neighborhood have sold for, but avoid relying on the grapevine. Your agent will do a comparable check of houses nearby, and that's generally the most reliable estimate of what your house will sell for. The maxim real estate professionals apply to valuation of real estate is that there are three factors that govern value: location, location, and location. It simply makes no sense to try to infer the value of your house from what a similar house somewhere else sold for.

By the same token, however, real estate value today depends on many factors other than location:

  • Seasonality (your real estate agent can help you gauge the effect of this in your area)
  • Local and state economic conditions
  • Strength of your local school system
  • Condition of your house
  • Interest rates (an assumable low-interest loan may make your house unusually valuable when rates are high
  • Availability of possession (in some circumstances, the value of your house may be much higher if the buyer knows it's available right away, or in time for school to begin)

Setting a price that's too high has two negative effects. First, it will extend the time that it takes to sell your house, which extends the time you're making the mortgage payment. Second, as your house sits on the market, your listing will become stale, and people will begin to wonder what's wrong with it that's driving buyers away. A stale listing will almost always fetch a lower offer than one that's new on the market. This will require that you bargain up just to get a fair price.

Clean

Does it sound like I'm your mother? Maybe. But it's surprising how many house sellers forget this simple step. The money you spend to clean your house thoroughly, top to bottom, is almost certainly the smartest money you can spend on your house. Hire somebody if necessary to clean the windows, and don't forget the screens. Your house needs to gleam when the seller sees it, and it needs to smell clean too.

Pay special attention to bathrooms. If you have window coverings that make them darker or seem smaller, get rid of them. Clean the shower and toilet thoroughly, paying special attention to the base where the toilet meets the floor (that's a real problem area for most of us).

Pay special attention to your kitchen. Many people make the decision whether to buy a house based solely on their opinion of the kitchen. Clean your oven. Clean the exhaust hood and cooktop on your stove.

Clean the outside of water heaters and furnaces. Here's a trick: Inspectors often drain the bottom of a water heater to see how much iron is deposited in it. You may want to drain it yourself beforehand to remove any loose rust.

Clear

This is different from cleaning. Most people have too much furniture in their house, so you probably do too. Get it out of there. Your house needs to be furnished, but sparingly furnished. If you have to, rent a storage warehouse for the extra pieces. (Or if you're moving to a smaller place, go ahead and donate them or sell them at a garage sale).

The countertops in your kitchen need to be virtually clear. Stow the toaster, blender, and extra trays in a closet or a plastic tub somewhere out of site. Be merciless. The grocery bags full of receipts and old newspaper clippings you keep in your bedroom have to go. Stow them too. If you have to, rent a storage warehouse for them. Better still, get rid of them so you can live more simply.

You probably have too many personal hygiene items on the vanity in your bathroom. Most people do. Put them in drawers or in a plastic tub out of sight.

Let's all say together, "Garages are for cars, and attics are for junk." If you have junk in your garage, lose it.

Avoid Empty

Remember we said your house should be furnished? If you and your spouse have both moved out of the house, leave basic furniture there until the house sells. If you have to, rent furniture. Don't try to sell an empty house. It's just too hard for most   buyers to imagine living in it.

Focus on Curb Appeal

This is the time to fix that loose brick on your porch. Make sure the lawn is kept mown and trimmed during the entire selling process, even after you have a contract. If your mailbox lists to starboard, this is the time to straighten it up. Replace that rusty looking doorbell button, and polish the brass plate on your door. Replace the worn doormat with a new one.

If the outside of your house is peeling or buckling, spring for repainting. Do not plan for the buyer to do it.

Agree on Who's Paying for What

When you and your spouse agree you're going to sell the house, it's easy to think that the issue is resolved and nothing else needs to be decided. Oh if it were only so simple! How will you handle it if you need to put in a new heat pump while you're trying to sell the house? What if the buyer demands gutters, or resurfacing the driveway? If at all possible, think through these issues while you and your spouse are negotiating, so you won't have to have another fight down the road when the bill is due.

 

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