February 27, 2010 12:14 am

Till debt do us part

 
An illustration of a separated couple in a house

Spaced-out: Couples who have separated but face negative equity, difficulty in selling their property or simply can’t afford to move out are increasingly having to stay put

After years of arguments and tension, Steve and Diana finally decided to separate. Their mortgage situation, however, meant they were stuck with each other until the stale property market revived. So they came up with a peculiar solution – one week Steve would live in their house while Diana slept on a friend’s sofa. The next week, they would swap. The plan unravelled when Steve fell out with his friend and ended up sleeping in his car. Angela Lake-Carroll, an independent family law consultant who advised the couple (their names have been changed), says such situations are far from unusual. She has also dealt with couples who divide a house into upstairs and downstairs with a rigid timetable for kitchen and bathroom use.

Money problems brought on by the economic downturn and a volatile housing market have forced increasing numbers of couples to live separate lives under the same roof. Jonathan Moore, UK and Ireland country manager at Easyroommate.co.uk, a website for individuals wanting to find a flatmate or houseshare, says: “Relationships don’t always work out but the recession is preventing even more couples from making a clean break when they split up. Difficulties in selling houses, negative equity and not being able to afford to move out are forcing more people to carry on living with their exes. Unfortunately, those same financial stresses that make the break-up process so difficult are often a key reason for the break-up.”

Jonathan Alpert, a New York-based psychotherapist, has seen many more couples living together “due to financial worries, who ordinarily would have been in a divorce court. They are in a bind of sorts. They can’t make mortgage and rent payments solo, yet can’t stay married happily. They feel it’s easier to deal with the psychological cost than the financial cost.”

David Hollingworth, of London and Country Mortgages, says one of the key problems for couples wanting to live apart is the inflexibility of mortgage providers. “Even if you’re not in negative equity, your options will be limited if you can’t get a good return on selling your home. It used to be that [UK] providers could lend 120 per cent of the value of a property but those products are no longer available.” Before the financial crisis, he says, “there were very innovative products” that could help partners to buy out their ex of their shared home but now the focus is on low risk.

Even when a split is amicable, living apart under the same roof is not straightforward. George Bonham (not his real name), a former banker who lives in Bournemouth, south England, and is working on starting his own business, says there was no acrimony between him and his ex but the housing market created problems. In March 2008 they put their two-bedroom property on the market and decided to continue to live together until they found a buyer. Despite having on average two viewings per week from prospective buyers, they still have not had an offer.

The situation has caused difficulties, says 32-year-old Bonham. “Problems snowball and you have to constantly adapt to new situations.” Chiefly, new partners. “Three months after we split up, I found a new love interest. My ex and I had to create some ground rules quickly. We established we wouldn’t bring partners back as it was too fresh and emotional. We were both reasonable and once that was agreed, we behaved in a respectful way.” Nonetheless, his new partner did have concerns about him living with his ex: “My relationship swiftly ended because of my living arrangements,” he says.

Even food shopping required renegotiation, he says. “When we were together she used to cook and do the shopping, and continued to after the split. I didn’t try to change things – why would I? But when she started seeing someone else, she decided to stop.” Despite continued friendship with his ex, he would not suggest others follow his example. “I would advise anyone in my situation to move out of a shared property, rent it out, split the rental income and make your own arrangements.”

But if you see no alternative to living together, Bonham says ground rules are essential. If necessary, remarks Lake-Carroll, it might be worth involving another person – a friend, family member or a professional family mediator. “When people get caught up in a crisis they become paralysed and lose perspective. They can behave in very peculiar ways.”

Alpert has helped many couples in this situation work out how to cope – “how to bring dates home, handle expenses and simply cohabitate, given the stress of the relationship.” Nonetheless, he says, there are cases “where trouble looms [in spite of the ground rules] due to resentment, usually when the relationship ended in a way that one person feels is unfair. If a couple agrees not to bring other people home, then that may lead to resentment. Further, if someone doesn’t come home at night, it raises suspicion and leads to trouble.” Lake-Carroll advises people in this situation to “make space for themselves – go on short breaks or days out with friends.”

Nicholas Rose, a psychotherapist based in London, adds that rules continually need to be revised. “A couple will only become fully aware of how easy or difficult the restructured relationship is once they try.” He suggests establishing a trial period and a date for review. One couple he worked with agreed “they would fully review [the situation] once the incentive period of their mortgage came to an end, when they would be free of any financial penalties and theoretically in a position to sell and buy separately.” This couple has successfully managed to live together for more than two-and-a-half years.

The key, says Lake-Carroll, is that couples need to “work out how to make the atmosphere and situation bearable for themselves and the children. No recession lasts for ever. Eventually, the market adapts and finds innovative solutions.”

Some couples, she says, have found more suitable properties through house swaps, either through traditional estate agents offering such a service or via dedicated sites such as Homeswapper4sale.co.uk. Home swapping, traditionally a way to find temporary accommodation for holidays (by exchanging properties in different countries), is now being used to help initiate sales by matching the homes of people who want to trade up or down but are unable to sell in a normal chain because of stale market conditions.

For those couples who sell their property using the traditional route, the process can still be fraught with tension, according to Phil Tennant, regional sales director for central and south-west London at Hamptons International. “The hardest job is to sell a property when the split is acrimonious – you have to have two conversations, as they never agree. We joke we should get a higher percentage when couples are divorcing because it’s twice as much work. We could get 100 viewings, 10 offers and none are acceptable.”

This is why Lake-Carroll suggests looking at an ex-partner “as someone you don’t get on with at work – most of us don’t have the luxury of treating a co-worker in an unreasonable manner, so get on with it.”

If this sounds grim, Alpert offers hope for a romantic ending: “I’ve had several couples on the brink of divorce and living as roommates rekindle the passion and go on to have a very healthy marriage.”

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Ground rules and gaining perspective

Don’t simply sell your property at a knock-down price, tempting though it might be to do so. You need to maximise – not minimise – your finances if you are to support a home each for the future, and selling at a loss might increase your bitterness towards each other unnecessarily.

Would letting a room or part of your current property allow one of you to move out and rent elsewhere? (Remember to check legal and planning requirements in regard to renting space in your home.)

Find out whether it might be possible to rent out your current property – allowing you to find individual properties to rent for yourselves in the short to medium term.

Think about property swapping – but remember to get specialist legal advice if you decide this might be for you.

Try to agree some “ground rules” – especially around subjects such as finances, that are likely to prompt argument. If you can’t do this together, think about using a professional such as a mediator to help you to agree things calmly.

Don’t try to “score points” against each other or to deliberately enrage each other – the situation is already tough enough.

Get short breaks from one another. A weekend with a friend, a day out or even a short holiday will help you to see things from a fresh perspective.

Think of ways in which you can ensure the children get a break, too. Stays with grandparents or special adults in their lives or sleepovers with friends will give them (and you) space.

Angela Lake-Carroll offers tips on living apart together at www.resolution.org.uk

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