Two Exes, One Roof
What happens when a divorcing couple meet a slow
housing market? Usually, it's not pretty.
on the Boston Globe's website
By Lisa Prevost
Boston Globe Sunday Magazine
June 15, 2008
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
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
"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
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