November 15, 2018 | Divorce and Debt
When I was 27 years old life was pretty good. I’d just finished my Masters Degree and I was working at a well-respected and cutting-edge advertising firm here in Toronto, where there was free breakfast for everyone and free cab ride homes if you worked late. I was not in real estate just yet. I had great friends, loved living in the city and my life felt like a never ending procession moving forward. About 3 or 4 months into my new job I began to develop a headache that was lingering for a couple of days that would not go away. I ignored it. I powered through my work and took a lot of Advil.
Then one day it became so bad I started feeling dizzy, to the point I had to hold onto the wall for balance. So, off to the doctor I went. As I stood there in front of him, he asked if I could take off my shirt for an examination. My fingers would not work to unbutton my shirt buttons. So, he walked me to the front of the street outside of his office and hailed me a cab. He paid for the cab and instructed the cabbie to bring me directly to emergency at the closest hospital. He scribbled something down on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “Give this to front desk as soon as you get there,” he told me. As I was driving to Emergency , I read the note. It said “Brain Tumor”.
Luckily, I didn’t have a brain tumor. Unluckily, my symptoms grew worse. For months, the best I could do for exercise was walk around the block once a day. I had a crushing headache all day no matter what I tried to get rid of it. I had every test imaginable. The joke with my doctor, and those who practiced alternative medicine, was that I was the healthiest sick person they met. Unfortunately, even though I was employed, my insurance company would not cover any long term disability because there was no test to prove anything was wrong with me. So I received $0 in insurance. This, in turn, put a lot of stress on my finances, since I couldn’t work.
After being sick for a year, I slowly started getting better. I returned to work part-time and then after my second year I was able, and lucky enough, to go back full-time. The mysteriousness of this illness never became very clear to anyone, but I was very lucky that, with time, my body went back to normal, and to date, whatever happened never came back.
As anyone who has had a serious setback like this, it can feel next to impossible to turn things around when things are not going well. It feels like downward momentum or racing in the wrong direction without any brakes. Once you realize you are able to change the direction of your momentum back you do became wiser and more resilient. Those Facebook aspirational quotes can be right! These challenges in life really do make you a person who can ride out tough times. A great skill to have.
Why am I sharing this personal story? Well, after you have been around long enough, many of us will have moments like this, and because of my career in real estate, I often work with clients with whom I deeply empathize. They may not have gone down the same path as I did, but they did go down a tough path nonetheless.
In real estate, this can take the form of the 3Ds – Death, divorce and debt. And for some people, more than just one D to deal with! And when the 3Ds rear their ugly heads, people are often buying and selling real estate under very difficult circumstances. It’s not a time you may want to be buying or selling real estate, but you may not have an option.
Don’t get me wrong, Much of real estate happens around happy moments too, during times of what feels like upward momentum. You buy your first property. You just got married, or have decided to buy a home with your partner. You are building your real estate rental empire. You buy up to find a bigger house to fit your growing family. You sell your family home after retirement and buy an ocean-view condo in a warm climate and live happily, relaxed and in the sun until your final days.
But life is not so simple and straight forward. It’s a game of snakes and ladders. Some times you have some luck, and sometimes things don’t work out as planned, despite your best efforts. This doesn’t make you a bad or unsuccessful person. You’re not a failure or a loser. People get sick or injured. Marriages break up. Loved ones pass away. You lose your job. It’s those very tough crossroads in life where you feel you are being punished, but only later can appreciate the wisdom you will gain from it. Unfortunately, real estate transactions often must happen before that wisdom kicks in.
Big life changes often accompany big financial re-organizing. It’s a pressure-filled, stressful time that will test you. So, here’s my advice for navigating through some of the 3 Ds:
- THE DIVORCE (or breakup): Let’s be very clear, I’m not a lawyer, and any advice here is purely based on working with clients who have decided to move on from their relationships. What I have seen to be the most successful tactic, and again it may vary widely depending on your situation, is keeping a cool head. Try to work out as much as you can with your partner, even if other other half was/is a total jerk. Otherwise, the anger and emotion will do nothing but push up your lawyer fees, and keep you trapped in a state of divorcing instead of moving on after your divorce. Try your best, even though the other side may be unreasonable, to settle as much as you can without the acrimony that can accompany separations. Also, even if it’s a happy break-up, I would suggest you don’t continue to share assets. It is usually a good idea to sell off or have one of you take sole possession of any shared property. Life will be moving forward. Don’t anchor it to the past. You will be growing in different directions now. Your future self will thank you for this.
- DEATH: This is a tough one. It may be a parent, a partner or close friend. Use your empathy skills here to get every friend or relative on the same page. It’s a highly emotional time so things can derail easily when it comes to discussing money, or any property left behind. The best thing to do is to have a will in place before all this happens. It will provide a blueprint at a time when you, or a family member, or a close friend don’t want to think about logistics and just mourn. Also, if you are taking over the estate for someone, I would suggest you have your probate completed before you sell the house. In other words, whoever is legally handling the estate of the deceased should have title transferred to them prior to going on the market to sell. It can take an annoyingly long time but it will make for a much cleaner sale and attract buyers who know it’s ready to go, and there will be no complications with the title.
- LOSING A JOB (DEBT): Sometimes this can be no big deal – You may be in a profession where you can be headhunted quite easily in a few months. A small set-back. If you have a very specialized job or need to go through some job retraining because you are in a shrinking industry, then you may need to tap into your real estate assets. In some cases, you can borrow from your house until you are on your feet again. If you have to sell, it’s fine. Don’t beat yourself up. You were likely smart enough to build some equity.
- AN INJURY OR ILLNESS: If you, or your partner, or a family member becomes sick it can mean you may need to rework your current home to fit your coming needs. It’s a tough time to think practically here, but do your best to gauge what you may need in the future. You may be just fine to stay where you are, but in the future, the stairs of your house may be a problem. You may need an extra room for any health care worker to stay in. You may feel more comfortable living near a hospital. So many people wait until something happens, and then they are rushed to make a decision. So many elderly clients wait until something happens before they leave their house they owned for 50 years. And that’s their decision, but I can say it is a whole lot easier if you try to plan ahead as best you can.
For most people, when death, divorce or debt has deeply impacted their lives, they will instinctively want to do anything to lessen their immediate emotional load. Thinking about your finances usually puts you in a more stressed-out state than in a better one. So, it can be very tough to work out big real estate decisions in tough times. I often suggest to people that they need to take care of their future selves.
Work through the tough stuff now, even though it adds to the stress, because the future you will be be very grateful that the present you took care of business.
And in the future, the future you will give you a big hug for working out your real estate transactions during tough times because life was made better down the road!
One key thing that I know from most of my clients and my experience of falling mysteriously ill in my 20s, people are incredibly resilient. We will have some big event come our way at some point in our life that will create a lot of difficulty, and possibly launch us in a different direction. The scary thing can be not knowing where the direction is going. But it could also leads to a new life that may be unexpectedly better than before or very likely, not as bad as you thought it would be. I know this blog is a little different from my regular rants, but I think empathy is a very important part of this job. I see a lot of people having tough times, and I do think I have some insights into navigating through that.