In a normal economy, couples typically build equity in their homes, then divide that equity in a divorce, either after selling the house or with one partner buying out the other’s share. But after the recent boom-and-bust cycle, more couples own houses that neither spouse can afford to maintain, and that they cannot sell for what they owe. For couples already under stress, the family home has become a toxic asset.
“It’s much harder to move on with their lives,” said Alton L. Abramowitz, a partner in the New York firm Mayerson Stutman Abramowitz Royer.
Mr. Abramowitz said he was in the middle of several cases where the value of the real estate could not be determined. “All of a sudden,” he said, “prices are all over the place, people aren’t closing, and it becomes virtually impossible to judge how far the market has fallen, because nothing is selling.”
For John and Laurel Goerke, in Santa Barbara, Calif., the housing market crashed in the middle of what Mr. Goerke said had been an orderly legal proceeding. At the height of the market, Mr. Goerke said, they had their house appraised at $2.3 million, which would have given them about $1 million to divide after paying off the mortgage. But by the time they sold last year, the value had fallen by $600,000, cutting their equity by more than half.
“That changed everything,” said Mr. Goerke, who is now nearly two years into the divorce process, with legal and other fees of several hundred thousand dollars. “The prospect of us both being able to buy modest homes was eliminated. The money’s not there.”
Now, with both spouses living in rental properties, their lawyers still cannot agree on what their remaining assets are worth. Their wealth is ticking away at $350 an hour, times two.
“It’s got to end,” Mr. Goerke said, “because at some point there’s nothing left to argue about.”
For other couples it does not have to end. Lisa Decker, a certified divorce financial analyst in Atlanta, said she was seeing couples who were determined to stay together even after divorce because they could not sell their home, a phenomenon rarely seen before outside Manhattan.
“We’re finding the husband on one floor, the wife on the other,” Ms. Decker said. “Now one is coming home with a new boyfriend or girlfriend, and it’s creating a layer to relationships that we haven’t seen before. Unfortunately, we’re seeing ‘The War of the Roses’ for real, not just in a Hollywood movie.”
In California, James Hennenhoefer, a divorce lawyer, said couples were taking advantage of the housing crisis to save money by stopping their mortgage payments but continuing to live together for as long as they can.
“Most of the lenders around here are in complete disarray,” Mr. Hennenhoefer said. “They’re not as aggressive about evictions. Everyone’s hanging around in properties hoping the government will buy all that bad paper and then they’ll negotiate a new deal with the government. They just live in different parts of the house and say, ‘We’ll stay here for as long as we can, and save our money, so we have the ability to move when and if the sheriff comes to toss us out.’ ”
Mr. Hennenhoefer said this tactic worked only with first mortgages; on second and third mortgages, the lenders pursue repayment even after the homeowners have lost the home.
Dee Dee Tomasko, a nursing student and mother in suburban Cleveland, expected to leave her marriage with about $200,000 in starter money, primarily from the marital home, which was appraised at about $1 million in 2006. By the time of her divorce last year, however, the house was appraised at $800,000; her share of the equity came to about $105,000.