How to Sell a House During a Divorce: Your Step-by-Step Guide

Even amicable divorces can get complicated fast. While you deal with the emotional hurdles of ending your marriage, you face a daunting to-do list: collecting information for your attorney, sorting through insurance policies, making decisions about alimony and child support, and tax planning start to fill your days.

If you’ve decided with your ex-spouse to sell the family home, that task alone can feel a million miles long. But if you can get past the initial hassles, it’s actually a smart move toward making a clean break from the situation (if that’s what you desire).

To reduce stress, follow this step-by-step guide we’ve put together that breaks down the process of how to sell a house during a divorce into small, manageable steps.

Step 1: Pick an agent who’s objectively qualified in divorce sales.

In the past, you and your spouse may have selected to hire a family friend or mutual acquaintance to serve your real estate needs. But you may find that staying away from personal recommendations is ultimately beneficial when you’re getting divorced. You need a neutral third party who’s got experience in divorce sales to navigate the logistics and communications throughout the process of selling your house.

Going through a divorce is also considered by psychologists to be one of the most stressful events that a person will go through, so you should look for an agent who can be empathetic to your situation while acting in a professional capacity.

“You’ll want to find a patient and understanding Realtor in a divorce situation,” says Ken Viele, a Divorce Specialist and top-selling agent in Naugatuck, Connecticut.

“Someone who will truly care about helping you through that difficult time in your life. My challenge is balancing between knowing that I have a job to do and getting the home sold and being sensitive to what’s going on emotionally.”

You can connect today with a top real estate agent who has experience in divorce sales using HomeLight’s agent-matching service. Let our live concierge know your priorities and they’ll be able to recommend a few qualified professionals in your area to choose from.

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Step 2: Provide your agent with the relevant details of your divorce decree.

Once you’ve hired an agent, you should provide them with any stipulations regarding real estate that have been laid out in your divorce decree.

These often involve which spouse the court has appointed to act on behalf of the couple—typically, the spouse still living in the home—the listing price, and when to reduce the price to a certain point. Other decrees can discuss who is responsible for any home repairs and how to get approval for those costs.

When you receive an offer on the home, your agent needs to know who has the authority to accept it and if there are any minimum price requirements.

Step 3: Get the house ready to sell.

In most divorce cases, you’ll want to sell your home as quickly as possible to avoid carrying the costs of the mortgage any longer. At the same time, you and your ex-spouse will both be financially motivated to achieve the highest price for the home (this isn’t always the case if one spouse decides to buy out the other, and is gunning to get a low appraisal).

So, the same standard rules of thumb for home preparations apply: Deep clean, declutter, and stage the home if necessary to make sure the property presents well to potential buyers.

Follow these pro tips to get through the home prep process in the midst of a divorce:

  • If it’s too painful to get rid of certain items in the decluttering process, put sentimental possessions in storage until you have more emotional energy to sort through it all.
  • Experts recommend that at least one person stay in the house until it sells. For one, you don’t want to let maintenance slip (Murphy’s law has it that pipes are more likely to burst when no one’s home) and empty homes typically don’t show as well.
  • Trust your agent when it comes to their recommendations on home repairs and preparations. They will know how to get your house into shape before the home inspection and what buyers in the area expect. (Note that your agent will need to follow the stipulations of the divorce decree. There may be a cap on how much money can be spent on preparations before the sale or guidance on who they have to consult—like you, your ex-spouse, and the judge—on these matters to get approval to move forward.)
A person using a computer while selling a house during a divorce.
Source: (Pxhere)

Step 4: Price the home to sell.

During the course of a normal home sale, your real estate agent performs a comparative market analysis, or CMA, which looks at comparable home sales in your area to provide an estimated value for your home.

Although the CMA is a widely used and highly respected tool for pricing homes, it still might leave too much room for disagreement during a contentious divorce.

In that case, a home appraisal comes into play prior to listing the home. However, you’ll have to pay between $300-$500 to get a pre-listing appraisal. Whatever method you choose to price the home, avoid the biggest mistake of overpricing your home, which can deter buyers from even booking a showing and cause your house to linger on the market.

Step 5: Develop ‘reason for selling’ talking points with your agent.

According to Realtor Magazine, one of the top four questions that your agent is likely to receive during an open house or showing is “Why is the seller moving?”

Your agent isn’t technically required to share that kind of personal information with a potential buyer, but skirting the question may lead the buyer wondering what’s wrong with your house. For that reason, it’s best to talk with your agent about how you want them to answer this uncomfortable question.

Viele has a tactful script that he uses to share just enough so that buyers know what’s going on without getting into details, such as: “The sellers will be going their separate ways, but they are working together to achieve a smooth transaction and I will do everything I can to see to that.”

If you don’t want your agent to share details about your split, you can ask them to say something generic like: “They are moving on to a property that better fits their family’s needs.”

Whatever you decide, be prepared for buyers to ask the question and have that discussion with your agent about your preferences.

Step 6: List the home, market it, and plan for your showings.

At this point in the process, your agent will list the home on the MLS, which will then syndicate it to all the top real estate websites. They’ll also execute on your home’s marketing plan which may include a mix of online and offline promotions.

You’ll also need to decide whether you’ll be scheduling an open house or sticking with private showings. Some drawbacks of open houses are that they can be time consuming and attract nosy neighbors who may be wondering what’s going on with you and your home.

Moreover, divorce sale or not, 63% of top agents do not recommend open houses.

So if you are in a time crunch, or just want to keep it simple, you may want to skip the open house and opt for private showings instead.

Regardless, be sure to talk with your agent about any times that are off-limits for appointments, and if those living in the house will be expected to accommodate last-minute showing requests.

A woman considering how to sell a house during a divorce.
Source: (Allie Lehman/ Death to the Stock Photo)

Step 7: Consider offers from buyers based on your priorities.

When it comes to fielding offers, you might find that things become complicated. You’ll not only be negotiating with the buyer, but also with your former spouse.

However, with some pre-planning and pre-discussions about the goals of the sale, you will be all set to make this step as smooth as possible. Talk with your Realtor about what your priorities are—such as selling as fast as possible or getting a certain dollar value to cushion a tentative divorce financial situation —before those offers start rolling in.

“In most cases they want to move on to where they have already decided that they are moving on to,” said Viele. “The house may be the only thing tying two people together and they want to cut that tie and move along.”

Step 8: Complete the closing process with your agent’s help.

Once you’ve found a buyer, you are in the home stretch, but beware there could be unexpected issues that come up during the closing—particularly when emotions are high.

Viele recalls a situation where one of his clients did not want to let go of a home because of the memories. He said that she was hit hardest when an offer came in, and she had a challenging time agreeing to it.

If that’s the case, you may need to bring in a third party, like a lawyer or mediator, to come to an agreement, and that can take time and potentially lead to you losing out on an offer.

“It’s very important for the Realtor to understand that there may be more work to a divorce sale than other types of sales,” said Viele.

Other issues that might come up are a disagreement about who will cover repairs that are found during the home inspection. Like everything else, if you have a discussion about this early on, it will save you time in the long run.

A meeting after selling a house during a divorce.
Source: (Gabrielle Henderson/ Unsplash)

Step 9: Collect and split your proceeds according to your state’s laws.

It’s possible for you and your spouse to agree ahead of time how to split the proceeds from the sale of your home. If you can’t decide, your state will for you.

Your property division laws will fall into one of two categories:

  1. Community property (everything is split 50/50)
  2. Equitable distribution (the court will divide the property in an “equitable manner” taking into account factors such as earnings contributions and who is raising the children)

Nine states follow community property law for real estate:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

If you live and sell your home in one of these states, you will be dividing the proceeds of the home equally if you come to an impasse. Otherwise, you’ll go through the process of equitable distribution.

You’ll also want to be aware of preserving the capital gains tax break in a divorce. Married couples that jointly own their home can exclude up $500,000 of their home sale profit, but they have to meet the ownership and use tests to qualify.

That can get murky depending on the timing of your sale and if one spouse has already moved out. Your best bet is to consult a seasoned tax professional to manage this element of your finances.

Selling the house so you can finally move on

Selling a home during a divorce adds extra layers of complication to an already time consuming and challenging process. But with an idea of the steps involved and by hiring trained professionals, you can get through this. When in doubt keep your eye on the end goal: moving on to the next chapter.

Header Image Source: (Pxhere)