Helping Clients Navigate Death, Divorce or Job Loss

Aside from gauging the inevitable ups and downs of the housing market, REALTORS® must be sensitive to the peaks and valleys that run through their clients’ lives. Guiding clients through difficult changes—such as death, divorce or job loss—is among the most challenging aspects of the business.

What’s the best way to handle these delicate scenarios?

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, carefully listening with empathy to the client, being able to recommend resources in other areas such as law, seeking the experience of mentors and continually training can often lead to a favourable outcome for everyone.  

Dealing with death

“A good real estate professional knows how to navigate around the emotions of the moment and inform their client every step of the way,” says Lowell Martens, a REALTOR® and broker/owner of Re/Max Mountain View in Calgary. “Always keep the client in mind. Think of it this way: We don’t set the situation like a thermostat. We’re more like a thermometer that adjusts to the client’s temperature.”

Reading the situation in the moment and responding accordingly are skills that may be best acquired with hard-won experience, says Martens, who’s in his 60s and has been in the real estate business for 45 years.

When Martens was starting out, he had a property listed that was owned by a senior citizen who stalled when a good offer came in before saying she just couldn’t accept it. Her husband had died recently and, though Martens respectfully tried to explain that she should consider moving on the offer, she wouldn’t budge.

Enter the older, more experienced agent representing the buyer, who with Martens learned through graceful questioning that the woman’s husband had been a carpenter who built the home and that the couple raised their three children there.

“You know, when you sell a property, you don’t leave the memories behind,” he said to the woman. “You can take all of your memories with you.”

The buyers were a young couple looking to start a family in the home, he told her. They appreciated all the little touches her husband added when building the home because the husband looking to purchase was also a journeyman carpenter, who hoped one day to erect a treehouse in the yard for his kids.

Soon after, the woman happily sold her home to the couple as she believed they would carry on her husband’s legacy through maintaining a beautiful home for a loving family.

So how are these subtle skills acquired if you don’t yet have the experience?

“Talk with experienced REALTORS®, the ones who have been around for years that you know you can rely on,” says Martens. “They want to pass on their wisdom. The key is listening.”

Of course, the scenario of death can play out in different forms, acknowledges Sherry Sheldrick, past president of the Saint John Real Estate Board (New Brunswick), 2nd vice-president of the New Brunswick Real Estate Association (NBREA) and a member of CREA’s marketing and communication committee.

“Generally speaking, where it is the estate/family looking after the real estate transaction, it is best to guide them through the process and timelines that work for them,” she says.

Items to address could include:

  • cleaning out the property;
  • possibly addressing certain items to prepare for sale; and
  • understanding who has the authority to make the decisions and working and communicating directly with them. 

“Ensure they have all the appropriate documentation on hand, such as the death certificate and power of attorney,” says Sheldrick. “Have a list of professionals (painter, cleaner, handyman, contractor for example) on hand to refer if necessary. Be patient and give them the time they need to prepare the property.”   

woman looking sad

Dealing with divorce

Divorce can be a hazardous area with plenty of pitfalls lurking for real estate professionals, especially for those who are dealing with a couple in the midst of selling a property while splitting. The couple could sell the house and divide the proceeds, or perhaps one spouse could buy out the other.

Regardless, being consistently aware of your duties as a REALTOR® as well as  trying to ensure there’s access to proper legal advice are steps to consider in what is for some a minefield.

“Stay professional and focus on what is best for the sellers, which is to sell the home for the most money in the shortest amount of time,” says Sheldrick. “Be impartial and avoid taking sides or getting involved in any drama. Encourage them to think of the big picture and what will best benefit each of them.”

When dealing with divorce, it’s important to meet with all parties, together preferably, to assess their situation, she says. They may collaborate well together, which is the ideal scenario, or there may be conflict in which the agent can become the go-between.

Be aware that, in some cases, it’s double the work when having to communicate separately with all parties, she says. Take these steps:

  • be consistent in your messages;
  • take good notes; and
  • document everything.

With more than 50 years of experience, Marty Douglas, Professional Standards Advisor at the Real Estate Council of British Columbia (RECBC) and former broker has pretty much seen it all. He’s still open to learning and that’s what he advises real estate professionals to do in all areas, including situations that involve divorce.

“Real estate should be a program of growth,” says Douglas. “Mentor development is the best way to gain skills, along with education courses along the way.”

There are a variety of online professional development courses which focus on ethics. Find one in the province you do business in. You can also find other professional development courses on CREA’s Training Hub.

Otherwise, a good agent can provide a client with a valuable list of professionals, including lawyers in the right area of practice, says Douglas, who has written about issues to consider when representing spouses in the sale of a matrimonial home.

Dealing with job loss

Job loss can often be more of an emotional rather than a legal challenge for the client, says Douglas. However, the biggest problem with job loss is likely to be the mortgage itself and the client’s ability to maintain the debt on the property.

“In the case of job loss, frequently the agent doesn’t know,” Douglas says. “People who are proud are not going to let their agent know, even though eventually it will come to light and then the agent can take appropriate steps.”

Sheldrick once had a client on the verge of going bankrupt and losing their home, which would have negatively affected their credit. 

“I did everything to work my magic to get them enough in the sale to pay off the mortgage,” she says. “I worked with the bank to forego/reduce the penalty, the lawyer to reduce the fee and also reduced my commission to sell the property so they didn’t need to file bankruptcy,” she says. “In some cases, it can be a team effort, all working in the best interests of the client.”  

Takeaway at a glance

Overall, these are some skills to work on when navigating death, divorce and job loss for clients:

  • Aim to empathize and/or sympathize to build a trustworthy relationship;
  • Be patient, listen and seek to understand;
  • Ask questions to learn what advice the client needs to maneuver through the process; and
  • Focus on listening, communication, knowledge and problem-solving.

“In these scenarios, emotions are often running high, so having someone neutral that can look at a situation and find solutions or point out the advantages or disadvantages can be very effective,” says Sheldrick.   

The CREA Café team is responsible for the official blog of The Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA). The CREA Café is a cozy place for CREA to connect with our valued members and friends by sharing our thoughts and insights over a virtual cup of coffee.

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