Laurel Starks has served as a court-appointed real estate expert for messy divorce cases that involve incarcerations, restraining orders, attempted suicides, and attempted murders. She even had a case where a husband assaulted his wife’s attorney.
“It’s messy, and it’s sad,” says Starks, founder of Divorce Real Estate Institute LLC in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. She also leads the Starks Realty Group at Keller Williams Realty – Rancho Cucamonga, and authored the book The House Matters in Divorce: Untangling the Legal, Financial and Emotional Ties Before You Sign on the Dotted Line (Unhooked Books, 2016).
But not every divorce case brings such horror or pain. While decisions are tough and emotions are high, a real estate professional can ease some of the stress as they help people navigate a trying situation.
In 10 years since Starks’ first divorce case, she has done upwards of $140 million in sales with divorcées and has been involved in more than 1,000 transactions. There’s plenty more where that came from, with more than 2.4 million divorces in the U.S. each year and 70 percent of those separations involving real estate, she says.
As of this January, she began offering other real estate practitioners the Certified Divorce Real Estate Expert program (unaffiliated with the National Association of REALTORS®) through her Divorce Real Estate Institute. She also has been educating divorce attorneys and judges about the complicated real estate component of divorce.
Help hone the expertise you or your team bring to the divorce real estate niche with these tips from Starks and other brokers.
Be trustworthy, credible, and authoritative. Your clients will be hyperaware of every word you use, and your nonverbal cues when talking with them, Starks says. For instance, if she needs to email both parties together, she will write, “Dear Mr. Montgomery and Ms. Montgomery” on the first email. The next time she sends them a correspondence, she will turn the names around with the wife’s name first and the husband’s second. “They watch for those things to make sure you are being neutral,” she says.
Listen well. A common complaint among divorcing clients is that no one listens to them, says Joan Rogliano, broker-owner of Rogliano Real Estate Group in Denver and author of Your Keys to Moving on: A Guide to Navigating Divorce and the Marital Home (Joan Rogliano, Inc., 2017). In fact, when she went through her own divorce, she tried five different attorneys before she found someone she believed was actually hearing what she had to say.
One way to exercise your listening skills is when one party would like to stay in the house. First, run the numbers to make sure it’s financially feasible for your client to stay in the home, Rogliano says. If the numbers don’t support that, then it’s time for help them decide where they will go when the house is sold. Listening to their needs is extremely important in this situation.
Have a thick skin and take care of yourself. When you are stepping into the middle of litigation or an emotional situation, you are stepping into “a real estate war zone,” Starks says.
“It’s purposeful work, but you must be very comfortable in conflict,” she says. “That is my work. But I take a lot of spa days. Good self-care is important, too.”
Don’t negotiate house profits before the sale. Some issues can arise during the sale of property that may cause an inequitable situation between the two divorcing parties, says Peggy Spiro, broker-owner at Spiro Realty Group in Erie, Colo. She has been a real estate divorce specialist for many years, and she recommends that clients divide the money after the sale. For instance, Spiro once had a husband and wife negotiate the values of two homes. He took one, and she took the primary residence. But when the wife went to sell the house, it needed $40,000 worth of deferred maintenance.
Make a thorough real estate checklist. Starks had a situation where a wife had been in a house with her children for two years after her husband left. The house was going on the market on a Thursday with an open house Saturday. Sparks’ team called the sign company to put the For Sale sign on the lawn. However, Sparks didn’t tell her client when the sign was going up, and unbeknownst to Sparks, her client had not yet told her kids they had to move. When the children came home from school one day and saw the sign, it caused total chaos. “Now, we have a checklist, which includes letting the person in the house know the signs will go up on a certain day,” she says.
Set boundaries. You need to stay focused on business and be careful to not let anyone bully you, says Rogliano. Because she has a soft voice and a nice demeanor, she’s found some clients trying to pull a fast one on her. Also, never become a personal counselor to the people getting divorced. Explain that you are happy to help them with their home, and if they need help in other areas, then give them names and numbers of others who can help.
Collaborate with the divorcées’ team. Everyone has to communicate with one another on behalf of the family, Rogliano explains. You need to work with their lawyers, lender, financial planner, and other advisers. “People are fragile. Getting them the information they need to make an informed decision should be your top concern,” she says.
Coordinate moving logistics before closing. Spiro had a case where the wife was living in the house during an unfriendly divorce. She had emergency surgery three days before closing. The house needed to be cleared out of all her stuff, so the husband had to do it. That wasn’t a good situation to be in for anyone. “No one gets married thinking they’ll get divorced,” Rogliano adds. “Divorce is a lightning rod for emotion. But we’re helping people in one of the worst times of their lives.”