Leaving one's spouse doesn't have to lead to losing one's home


December 16, 1990|By ELLEN L. JAMES

When the young Towson couple separated last June, she got the deed to their California-style contemporary town house and felt triumphant.

But seven months later, the victory seems hollow. The costs of keeping the 3,000-square-foot home with its swank wrought-iron gate, brick courtyard and two-car garage is above the woman's reach. Yet her attempts to sell the property in the current real estate market have been futile.

"I even asked my husband to move back in so I could move out. But he didn't want to be stuck with the mortgage payment either," the woman laments.

The Towson woman's predicament is hardly uncommon. Paul Glick, until recently the senior demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau, says 50 percent of first marriages now end in divorce and 55 percent to 60 percent of second marriages also break up. And it's still generally the woman who winds up with the house.

"Getting the house used to be an accomplishment in divorce. But now the house can be a kind of albatross. You can't sell it and you have all kinds of carrying costs to keep it," says Douglas Bregman, a real estate lawyer in Silver Spring.

What good is a house if one can't afford to keep it and can't liquidate it at a decent price? The Towson woman dropped her price to $185,000, less than what she and her husband paid for the home 2 1/2 years ago.

Despite the discount, there's been hardly a nibble from a prospective buyer. Even for good, well-priced properties, buyers are scarce in many communities these days.

That's meant that the Towson woman, and others similarly positioned, are seeking alternatives to a quick sale. Many are taking a tenant to help offset costs. Others are renting their homes and moving into smaller, rented quarters themselves. And a few are forging agreements with investors, looking to equity-sharing as a way to keep a place they couldn't otherwise afford.

Finding creative housing solutions can be crucial to one's finances after a marital breakup, says Marsha Elser, president-elect of the Chicago-based American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. House-sharing can be an economical alternative for those unable to afford the carrying costs on their home, she says.

For some -- who would just as soon move because of memories associated with the house -- house-sharing is a stopgap solution until the property can be sold, Ms. Elser says. For others who want to stay or feel lonely on their own, it can be a more permanent solution. For many, it is an economical answer.

"You're dealing with an economy right now in which most people just don't have the money to support a house on one paycheck," says Karen Brownley, program manager at the Shared Housing Resource Center in Philadelphia.

Sharing housing with a relative or friend is an old-fashioned solution to housing problems, Ms. Brownley says. But taking boarders who are perfect strangers is also an increasingly common way of grappling with the housing cost issue.

Depending on the house and its location, one can expect a boarder to yield $200 to $400 a month in rent, Ms. Brownley says. The tenant typically pays for his or her food but the owner generally covers the full cost of utilities. Count on spending an extra $25 to $35 a month in utility costs for the tenant.

Ms. Brownley cautions against going into a shared housing arrangement too casually. "I wouldn't recommend that anyone go into such a relationship with just a handshake or a word-of-mouth agreement."

Renting your house and moving into smaller quarters could be a sound option for someone in a situation like that of the Towson woman, says Dorcas Helfant, president-elect of the National Association of Realtors. "Sometimes -- if you're living in a community with a soft real estate market -- waiting a year or so to sell may be to your financial advantage," she says.

But she advises those interested in renting their property to objectively evaluate the level of rental income they could expect as well as the related costs of renting. Real estate

firms that manage rental units could be of help in this process, as could ads in your community newspaper.

Bringing in an outside investor to help support the house payments in exchange for an equity stake in the place is an option in a limited number of cases, says Charles Redick, president of Equitymaker Partners Ltd., a Reston, Va. firm that helps structure equity-sharing deals. Usually, the investor is a relative, friend or employer, he notes.

Eventually the property would be sold and the owner occupant and investor would split the proceeds.

If you're interested in booklets on house-sharing or in finding aagency in your community that screens prospective boarders, you can write or call the Shared Housing Resource Center, 6344 Greene St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19144 or call (800) 677-7472.

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