Trapped: Helping separated clients manage unwanted cohabitation during COVID-19

Trapped: Helping separated clients manage unwanted cohabitation during COVID-19

Trapped: Helping separated clients manage unwanted cohabitation during COVID-19

There’s a certain level of connectedness that comes from dealing closely with clients’ finances, their families and their dreams for the future. Because of the proximity to a client’s life and everything that makes it unique and worth securing, it’s only natural for brokers to concern themselves with more than just the bottom line.

When COVID-19 came barrelling toward Canada in March and strict social distancing and stay-at-home orders were put in place, one of the many unforeseen disruptions involved couples in the midst of divorces or separations being forced to shelter in place together.

“Pre-COVID-19, couples that were at crossroads in their relationships, someone would just pick up and go. They could easily find accommodations,” says Nathalie Boutet of Boutet Family Law and Mediation in Toronto. “Right now, with COVID-19, it’s very difficult for people to move out quickly. They don’t know where to go, they don’t know what’s available and you can’t see suites in person.”

The inability to separate has put many couples into complex, sometimes violent situations. In those involving domestic abuse, many victims simply have nowhere else to go. Government shelters are full and most short-term solutions, like Airbnb’s, have been taken off the market.

“People are nervous, and they’re accessing mediation services to try and sort out rules and regulations around their current properties,” Boutet says.

For owners bent on selling, one of the ongoing problems is access to a comprehensive appraisal, which is critical in ensuring the separated parties receive a fair share of the proceeds. Realtors can still access data on comparable properties to determine a home’s value, but few would trust the comps established over the last four weeks. Certified home evaluators can provide a more thorough look at a property’s structure – if they can get inside.

Faced with the prospect of selling into an unpredictable market, the advice most mortgage professionals would give would be “Don’t sell!” But Boutet says there may be more at stake than achieving an above-asking sale price.

“It’s really important to figure out what’s going on in the house. Is there a lot of pressure? Is someone really, really unhappy and you can see it?” she says. “If there are children and it’s really, really tense, there should be ways to put the house up for sale.”

That might involve moving more quickly than most mortgage brokers and real estate agents would prefer. Boutet suggests patch-ups over renovations and says sellers could potentially reach out to staging companies for advice rather than waiting for an in-home consultation that can’t legally occur.

Selling rather than waiting out the pandemic may also help alleviate some of the stress involved with selling a home, which will be particularly high in separated households also reeling from COVID-19 layoffs.

“It’s not just a commercial issue right now,” Boutet says. “It’s also an emotional issue, and an energy issue.”

Mortgage brokers don’t have a legal obligation to step in and try to improve a client’s domestic situation, but Boutet urges them to be observant and sensitive and be willing to refer clients to services they may be in need of, whether it’s moderate mediation or full-on therapy.

“Mortgage people are people persons. They have instincts and they’re super good at picking things up,” she says. “Don’t hesitate to refer out to professionals because there are a lot of services that are running efficiently, even under COVID-19.”