In Part 1 we discussed whether your house is considered marital property, various factors that influence the decision to try to keep the house after a divorce, and some of the more common options for doing so. Now in Part 2, we will continue the conversation, in which we explore the legal process for valuing your house and some alternatives to keeping the house.
What Is My House Worth?
This is a key question if you are not going to be selling the house as a part of the divorce. If you agree to sell the house and split the proceeds evenly, then the value of the house will simply be whatever amount for which the house is sold. The market decides the value at the time of purchase and if you are splitting the proceeds evenly, it does not complicate equitable distribution. In other words, if the home sells for more than expected, you and your spouse will receive the benefit of that equally and if it sells for less, you and your spouse will both bear the burden equally.
While that is the simplest route, from an equitable distribution perspective, it is very common for individuals to instead want to stay in the marital home after divorce. That’s where it becomes important, and complicated, to ascertain the value of the home. You have a few options, in increasing cost and complexity:
Agree to Value:
The simplest manner to determine the home’s value for equitable distribution purposes is to agree to a value. This can be based on each of you doing your own research, online listing values (such as a Zillow estimate), or simply a strong belief you both hold as to the home’s monetary value. After all, you know your home better than anyone else. If you agree to a value, you can use that to determine what amount you will need to provide to your spouse, either in cash or in offsets from other marital assets, in order to buy out their share of the home so you can keep it. The Pros of this method are the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of agreeing to a price. The Cons of this method are the inaccuracy of the price as well as the difficulty some couples have in coming to any agreement during a divorce.
Comparative Market Analysis (CMA):
A CMA is somewhere between simply agreeing to a value and a full-blown appraisal. A CMA is performed by a real estate agent and involves comparing similar homes in the area that have recently been sold. Multiple factors go into a CMA, including but not limited to, location, lot size, and square footage, etc. A CMA is a great option if you and your spouse are not too far off in your personal estimates of the home’s worth—it will help determine what number to use. However, the bigger the difference in estimated values you and your spouse have, the less value a CMA will provide. If the CMA comes in at or near Spouse 1’s estimated value, then Spouse 2 is likely to reject it. If the CMA comes in at or near Spouse 2’s estimates value, then Spouse 1 is likely to reject it. If the CMA lands somewhere in the middle of both spouse’s estimates, they both may reject it. Ultimately, unless you both agree to be bound by the CMA, neither of you are required to agree to the price the CMA determines. The Pros of a CMA are cost (they are usually free) and speed (they are usually performed in a matter of days). The Cons of a CMA are that it is less accurate than an appraisal and require the parties to agree to a real estate agent to perform the CMA, which can be difficult in a high-conflict scenario.
An appraisal is a more formal process than a CMA and requires a licensed appraiser to perform an appraisal. While a lot of the market comparison process is similar to a CMA, an appraiser will typically enter your home and physically inspect the condition of the house, noting any defects, outdated aspects, or flaws with the home. As such, an appraisal is more thorough than a CMA. An appraisal results in an appraisal report in which the detailed findings of the home are noted, with photographic evidence. Appraisals also take much longer to perform, typically 30-60 days, to obtain the appraisal report. They also carry a hefty price tag. And similarly to a CMA, either one of you may end up rejecting the appraisal report’s value of the home if it does not come close to what you already believe it to be. Neither of you are bound by an appraisal’s value unless you both agree to be. Often when a matter ends up in court, you end up with “dueling appraisals” with different values. The Pros of an appraisal is the accuracy and thoroughness it provides while the Cons are the price and length of time it can take to obtain.
Alternatives to Keeping the House
The primary alternatives to keeping the house are selling it or letting your spouse buy you out of your share of the equity in the home. It is often the case that the home is burdened with extensive family memories, which can make it difficult to let go of. However, divorces are typically difficult on your finances and maintaining a home with one income instead of two can be too difficult to realistically handle. Combined with all of the other financial and lifestyle changes that come with a divorce, sometimes it is better to say goodbye to the house and give yourself a clean break. It is very common for there to be a “resting” or “recovery” period after a divorce in which the parties live in simpler housing for a time while they adjust to the new normal and determine what they can afford and just as importantly what they actually want at this point in their lives.
Some people move in which family for a while after a divorce, which can help stabilize their finances and provide a steady place for them and their children. Still others move into smaller rental options, like a smaller home or an apartment, to get by during the adjustment period. It can be helpful to start out “smaller” with your options and then adjust upward if and when you think the time is right. Otherwise, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the same life you had before a divorce without building back up to it. It can also be liberating to let go of an asset that is full of so many memories that are no longer a source of comfort; we have seen clients embrace a feeling of freedom when they let go of the struggle to keep the house and figure out how to maintain it. It is certainly not an easy decision to make, but it may be the best one for you and your family overall.
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