What Will Divorce Lawyer Carl Taylor Learn When He Lists His Own Home for Sale?
(Find Out in this Special Blog Series: The Empathy Project: Episode 1)
One of the nice things about being a divorce lawyer is that I can cavalierly advise clients to do something monumental. For instance: "ok, the two of you agree to sell your home. Great, now go get a realtor and sell it and then you can both split the net proceeds evenly). Easy stuff, right? Selling a home? With someone you probably no longer even like (or maybe even despise....). And then after I give this advice I can hang back while my clients go through the whole process, answer any questions they may have (or if it's a real estate question advise them to ask their realtor or real estate attorney), etc.
And I'm often so far removed from the process that I take for granted the hard work my clients (and their soon to be ex spouse) are undertaking.
And here's another thing: I've never actually sold a home before.
But as outlined in this "live blog journey," I will now try to do so.
Our Home, Our Story
My wife and I purchased our home in 2011. We bought our "starter home" in Flemington Borough, Hunterdon County and we purchased a fairly small, older colonial home in the historic district. We were young, newly employed in our fields, had no children, and had no fear of debt because we had $200,000 in combined student loan debt. Over the years the house was good to us and we put a lot of money into repairs. We purchased a new roof, we upgraded from an ancient oil tank (at least it was above ground) to gas heat, and we made a lot of other necessary but not exactly fun upgrades. We purchased a couple of years into the "Great Recession" but prices never really rebounded in our area.
After our first daughter was born, we made a half-hearted effort to list the house for sale. We never really got around to cleaning the home the way you should when listing and it was tough with a puppy and a toddler to leave the home each time someone wanted to view it. We took the house off the market and continued with upgrades to our older home. Our second daughter was born and as they got older the house started to feel smaller and smaller.
I grew up in a house even smaller and with only one bathroom (and literally no air conditioning of any kind) so I know it seems kind of spoiled to say this, but we began to want to move somewhere with more space.
So, October 1st of this year we entered into a rental lease to rent a single family home in Raritan Township---the same Township where our law office is located. And yesterday, our home was officially placed on the market.
I will (hopefully) finally get to experience what it is like to sell a home. I feel this will make me a better divorce lawyer. I know it is already making me a more empathetic one.
In this "special, limited series run" I will describe what it is like selling a home, the emotions and actions involved, and how it relates to listing a home for sale in a divorce. Of course, in this instance I get to sell a house with someone I have a great relationship with (at least for now.....who knows if this thing doesn't sell quickly).
Finding a Rental
First off, we made the decision to move out of our home before listing. We are lucky to have the resources to rent a home and maintain our house until it sells (perhaps not forever, but we have the resources assuming it sells within a few months).
Renting a home proved really difficult.
We wanted to keep our older daughter in the same school district we were already in so we were limited in where we could move. We also have a large collie dog (like Lassie but with seemingly no natural instinct to save humans), and not many single-family home rents want to rent to pet owners. Also, we wanted a single family home rather than to rent an apartment or town house. At the end of our search about 1 and a half homes met our qualifications (or we met the would-be landlords).
We offered to rent the one home that met such criteria and we quickly worked out a lease for September 1, 2019 (Labor Day weekend). "See," I thought....somewhat smugly......"this isn't so hard after all." Then, the day before we were supposed to move in (boxes in hand, children prepared for move) we were informed that the prior tenants would not vacate the home. Apparently the home they were having built was not completed so they were going to "hold over."
In New Jersey it is very hard to evict a tenant---the process could take months.
I was asked if I wanted to wait around to see what happened, but knowing how much fun litigation is I asked to be let out of the lease. To everyone's credit we were let out with not too much harm (other than the time of obtaining renters insurance, boxing stuff up, etc.----oh, and the fun of our having furniture delivered to the home that was now controlled by a third party who I had no agreement with).
We were so frustrated we decided we would not sell our home after all. We unboxed everything and I started to get quotes on upgrading our home to central air.
On the 15th of September the realtor reached out to us and asked if we would be interested in reconsidering as the tenants were now ready to leave. I told them we made up our mind to stay (as we had made up our minds----or so we thought).
Over the next two weeks, as I contemplated pumping $10,000 or more into a lovely home that nevertheless no longer seemed to serve our needs, I began to reconsider our original plan. My wife and I took turns oscillating between deciding to say and deciding to go. One day I decided I would stay in this house until the end and my wife wanted to still move. The next day we somewhat flipped in our positions. It was, in short, a total mess.
Towards the end of the month we were advised that the house we previously tried to rent was still available. This time we were finally in agreement and we signed a lease for October 1, 2019, or one whole month after we were supposed to move in. This time we were a little less anxious to box up everything, so of course the deal went quickly and without a hitch.
Our office manager Dawn recommended two friends of her son to help us physically move everything. We rented a U-Haul truck. I realized that I have aged quite a bit since the last time that I moved, that moving out of a house after 10 years is way, way harder than moving out of a college apartment, and that I really need to start lifting weights and get in some type of shape.
My wife helped organize the change of post office address, the new insurance, helped organize everything, and helped to keep me "motivated" to keep lifting ridiculously heavy furniture. (Aside - Like, seriously, why would a child's dresser need to weigh 400 pounds?)
Listing Our Home for Sale
The process of listing a home for sale is relatively straightforward. It mostly involved paperwork, which of course I am comfortable with being a lawyer. (Mmmmmm, more paper and boilerplate language...). My job also provided me with decent contacts for choosing a real estate agent. I knew what percentage commission was customary and all the other useful information. Unlike buying a house, there was no need to have our credit drawn or to consider financing.
If you're going through a divorce then it is often difficult to choose a realtor. This is because in a divorce generally people wish to do the opposite of what the other side desires. So, if Wife likes Realtor #1 then Husband will push for Realtor #2, and so on. Filling out the forms would be more troubling because there may be some disagreement about how much to disclose.
The biggest issue, of course, would be agreeing on a price to list the property for. Even in my relatively peaceful union there was a lot of disagreement, back and forth, and ultimately compromise about how much to list the home for. We settled on a number tens of thousands of dollars less than what we paid for the property in 2011, which of course is a big bummer. However, we do not want to have the house sit on the market and we do not want to carry the costs of two residences forever. We hope that by pricing the property aggressively we may even be able to sell it "above list," but who knows. The realtor provided us with a free comparative market analysis ("CMA") of the property but we did not pay for a formal appraisal. If our house was worth more maybe we would have. They generally cost around $500.00 or so. Formal appraisals are utilized often in divorces because the parties often cannot agree on the value of a home -- particularly when one party wishes to buy out the other.
Yesterday our home officially went on the market. It's already been toured five times so I'm hoping that is a positive sign. It's easy to have people schedule walk-throughs given that we are no longer technically living there. It's also generally easier to sell a house if it's empty and clean---something it never could be with our family if we were still residing there.
In future blog posts I'll update you on the process and how I am continuing to learn even more empathy for our divorce clients. It's not easy selling a home even under the best of circumstances. Wish us luck and until next time,