Single mothers: Don't rush into housing changes Avoid housing changes if newly single


February 14, 1993|By ELLEN JAMES MARTIN

Are you the mother of young children? Are you going through a divorce? And are friends and relatives suggesting that you will need to make drastic changes in your housing arrangements?

Then don't let them shape your plans, counsels Ruth Rejnis, the author of several books on real estate, including one for single parents.

Ms. Rejnis contends that real estate agents -- now mostly women -- have stopped stereotyping women customers. But there's still a danger that a newly single mother will be pushed in particular directions by supposed allies, the author says.

"Some people automatically assume that any woman would be afraid to be alone in the house with the children. They think she'd be a sitting duck for any criminal activity out there," Ms. Rejnis says.

By the same token, some believe that a single mother would be hopeless when it comes to home maintenance.

"There's the automatic assumption that she couldn't distinguish a Phillips screwdriver from any other screwdriver or that she couldn't afford to hire someone who could," Ms. Rejnis says.

The newly single mother may also be subjected to stereotypes )) about her economic capability to make house payments on her own.

"Poverty does come frequently to women when a marriage is dissolved," notes Judith Waldrop, research editor of American Demographics magazine. Yet while many formerly married mothers must sell the home they own to move into rental housing, Ms. Waldrop notes that not all women are in this position and that common expectations simply may not apply.

For single mothers on the brink of a housing decision, real estate experts offer these pointers:

* Defer a housing decision if at all possible.

"A marital breakup is a time of emotional upheaval. The more months you can put between your breakup and your housing decision, the better," Ms. Rejnis says.

Due to the financial duress of divorce, some single mothers can't hold out until their emotions are completely settled. But those that can postpone decision-making should do so, Ms. Rejnis advises.

Initially, for example, a single mother might believe the correct decision is to retreat from the marital home -- where doors were slammed and strong words were exchanged between the spouses. But later, these associations may wear off and, rationally, she'll realize that remaining in the home is the best plan for her and the children.

In the end, you as a single mother may choose a substantial change in your lifestyle in the aftermath of a divorce. Maybe you'll move to the country. Maybe you'll go from the suburbs to the city. Maybe you'll go back to the university and will want to live in a college town.

"Tomorrow, you might want something totally different than you think you want today," Ms. Rejnis counsels.

* Keep the advice of friends in perspective.

Unthinkingly, well-meaning friends may have more of a tendency to prejudge the single mother's housing needs than will most real estate professionals who have worked with a wide array of clients, says Dorcas Helfant, a realty executive and past president of the National Association of Realtors.

In the immediate aftermath of her separation, a single mother may be especially vulnerable to the opinions of friends, Ms. Rejnis observes.

"At this time, you may not have the answers for people when they tell you what to do."

* Don't automatically assume you must trade down to a cheaper housing unit after your marital breakup.

"These days, there are more and more women earning enough money to carry the house that they lived in when they were married," Ms. Rejnis says.

To assess your financial capabilities going forward, you may wish to consult an accountant, financial planner or budget counselor at a consumer counseling service, advises Ms. Helfant.

Such a neutral observer could well be better at crunching numbersthan your dearest friends.

"The main issue is financial reality. Can you afford to maintain the home without dipping into your reserves to do so?" Ms. Helfant says. Remember, also, to ask your adviser to factor in the tax implications of selling a house that would bring you a capital gain.

* Consider sharing your house to generate the extra income you may need to meet your payments.

"There shouldn't be an automatic assumption that a single mother must turn her home into a boardinghouse to be secure," Ms. Rejnis says.

Still, taking in a boarder or two -- perhaps a college student -- could mean generating the several hundred dollars per month that you, as a single mother, may need to retain your homeownership status.

* Worry more about your children's emotional well-being than their housing status.

Granted, you may be compelled against your will to move away from your marital home to an apartment, taking the kids with you. You may grieve the loss of the family room and backyard `D playground set. And, for financial reasons, you may have to make the transition more quickly than you'd like, allowing little time to ease the children through the housing move.

Hard as the move may be, however, you can console yourself with the understanding that the time and energy you spend easing your kids through the emotional process will prove even more important in the long run than where they live, Ms. Rejnis says.

"If the children feel insecure, it's not because of the four walls. It's because of the attitude of their parents," she says.

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