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Smoothing a rough process

Rising to the challenge when divorce drives home sale

Selling a home is always stressful -- the packing, the paperwork, the preparations, the financial concerns -- but it's even trickier when the breakup of a marriage is the reason for the sale.

When a home must be sold because of divorce, the situation becomes still more fraught with tension, emotional turmoil and difficult decisions. Having a Realtor with expertise in such delicate circumstances can help make the rough process a bit smoother.

"The family home is more than just a piece of real estate. It's emotionally charged," said Elaine White, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Menlo Park.

White is one such expert who is able to use her specialized skills and experience to assist her real-estate clients through divorce sales.

She worked as a family-law attorney for 16 years and has been a Realtor for the past 17. Though she found her law work rewarding, dealing with family conflicts "all day, every day" made it difficult not to burn out, she said. With her career switch to real estate, White has found that her background, with deep knowledge of contracts and property law, has made her especially valuable for cases in which a family home must be sold after a divorce, and estimated that around 20 to 25 percent of the real-estate sales she's handled have been divorce cases.

For family members going through a divorce, a house can be symbolic of the broken relationship.

"It's often the last vestige of the marriage. Every seller has memories from their homes but in divorce cases it's even more difficult," White said. People often have a hard time letting go of the property, and use it to try to maintain a connection with their estranged spouse. Or, alternately, embattled exes can find it tough to compromise on matters large and small.

"It's difficult for agents if people are not on the same page. One says, 'I want this much money,' the other says, 'I want this.' Whatever one says, the other says the opposite, and they need the court to step in every step of the way," White said of particularly difficult cases.

Because of her law background, White is sometimes appointed a "special master" by the county, giving her quasi-judicial powers to help a property case to proceed.

"I've sold homes when one party didn't sign a single document," she said. But she tries to remind her clients that it is both expensive and time consuming to continue going back and forth to court.

"It ends up with less money in both people's pockets," she said.

Sometimes it helps if two agents are involved, she said. In such cases, both agents still represent both parties but it can make the situation feel a bit more comfortable.

Often a home sale happens out of necessity because neither partner can afford to buy out the other, especially in the current economic climate, when high home-equity lines are hard to come by.

"Some people resist the process by trying to set the price too high, or the house is not always shown at its best," White said.

"More often than not the wife wants to keep the house even though it's not a good financial decision. They're trying to preserve life as they knew it."

In addition to her practical knowledge of the law, White said her awareness of the emotional pitfalls involved is key in helping clients through a successful transaction.

"Having an understanding of the emotional issues helps to deal with those issues as they come up," she said, adding that she has experience both as a negotiator and a mediator.

When kids are in the mix, even more sensitivity is needed, she said. Care must be taken that kids won't be too upset if their room is changed in order to prepare for open houses, for example, she said.

Sometimes she is also on the buying end of the transaction, helping clients relocate to a new place while selling the old.

"My ability to sell the house is made easier by helping someone see what they can buy so they know they won't be out on the street, to help them move forward," she said.

Though clients are aware of her law experience, White said it's important for her to remain focused on the task at hand and not become over-involved with the rest of the divorce case, she said. Early on in her real-estate career she was working on selling a house that successfully went on the market and was receiving offers.

"The wife was frustrated because she wanted to talk about custody issues with me. I said that's not what I was there for. She said, 'You only care about selling my house!' Well, that's my job.

"I can't get too involved but I am familiar with the process. I can give advice on how the system works and try to make it as smooth as possible," she said.

In addition to being referred by the San Mateo and Santa Clara county courts, White is often referred to clients by lawyers who are familiar with her unusual skill set. But while experience in family law certainly comes in handy, White said Realtors from all backgrounds can be effective in divorce situations, provided they have an understanding of the potential issues.

"What's important is patience and people skills, and the ability to help resolve conflict. It's a people-oriented job."

White has turned down clients whose relationships are just too toxic, such as in cases of domestic violence. Even in less extreme circumstances, it's not easy.

"Sometimes you have to do everything twice; it can be more labor intensive. The important thing to remember is that there are always two sides to every story, sometimes three. You have to stay neutral and it can be frustrating. You need a level of diplomacy and detachment," she said.

"What is rewarding is being able to do a good job of helping people get through a difficult time."

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