One in four marriages now breaks up, according to official figures. At least 150,000 couples will divorce this year and one, if not both, of the partners will need to find somewhere else to live. But, as Penny Jackson writes, there is one group of people who expect to do well out of our marital woes - estate agents.

Even though the UK's divorce figures have been falling slightly in the past few years, this country nevertheless has the dubious distinction of having the third-highest number of marriage breakdowns in Europe.

Not only are single buyers increasing in number but a growing proportion of these have left a marriage or long-term relationship, according to a report this week by General Accident Property Services.

Often with children, they are reluctant to settle for something much smaller than they are used to. So it is not surprising that estate agents see divorce as a substantial part of their business. From one broken marriage could come three transactions.

"We take on far more divorce-related sales than we do for death," says Richard Williscroft of the Chichester-based Henry Adams and Partners.

"No wonder they say here, `Are you happily married or do you live in West Sussex?' It is undoubtedly our biggest sector and it has grown in the past few years."

Like other agents familiar with the painful consequences of divorce, he has learned how to tread diplomatically through emotional minefields: "It all comes down to trust and sensitivity. For instance, we show people around when the children are at school.

"And if a woman is being forced to sell, you have to be careful that a potential purchaser doesn't reduce her to tears by saying how lovely a room is or asking how she can bear to leave. We act as a buffer. Solicitors and spouseseven use us to find out whether a certain offer is acceptable or whether someone could be out by a certain date. We do not get drawn into taking sides."

Not that easy though, when divorcing couples use their home and its contents as the last weapon in a bitter dispute.

One partner may want to see a high valuation on a house, the other low. They may try to drag out a sale or alternatively sell it as quickly as possible at a rock-bottom price to spite each other. Each partner may have instructed a different agent. Into these murky waters steps Ruaraidh Adams-Cairns, who runs the litigation support department at Savills, the property consultants.

The wealthy not only like to organise their finances from London but their divorces as well and the properties he values are worth not less than pounds 1.5m. Increasingly he is used by both parties although he has been known to drive a sceptical husband around a selection of houses to prove a point.

Ex-wives should not have to move from Chelsea or do without a swimming pool if that is what they are used to.

"Wealthy or not, any couple divorcing would do well to employ a chartered surveyor to do a bank valuation. An estate agent's marketing report based on a wildly optimistic guide price can cause an unbridgeable rift," says Mr Adams-Cairns. The co-habiting "divorce" is no less troubled and in many cases is more complicated. "Ideally couples should be co-owners of a property, otherwise they should sign a declaration of trust," says Hazel Wright, of solicitors Cumberland Ellis Peirs.

"Without such a legally binding agreement one partner could find themselves without a home. In the case of same-sex couples they may not even be welcomed back by their families. If there are children it is easier since provision is made under the Children Act."

Most commonly, divorce which causes the greatest upheaval in terms of the division of assets happens when a couple are in their 40s. They will have lavished time and money on their home and moving is a terrible wrench.

Mary Drewes fought hard to stay in the pounds 260,000 family house when her husband left her and their two children. "I was able to argue that in a rising market we would not save anything by moving. But then he started to get difficult about its increasing value. In the end we managed to do a trade-off with other assets. I am going to have to take in a lodger, though, to help pay the way."

This is not unusual. While divorce is lucrative for lawyers and estate agents, it is liable to impoverish the respondents. Lindsay Cuthill, from Savills' Fulham office, has noticed the tendency for divorcees to overestimate their settlement.

"It is often substantially below that [original estimate] and we advise them not to start looking for another home until they are sure of the amount. You do end up being viewed as a counsellor and people tell me far too much about the circumstances of their divorce."

Rarely is a sale straightforward. "I went around to one house where the couple were living on different floors and another where the custody of the dog was disputed," he said.

Perhaps this is one area where all agree that estate agents do earn their commission. Francoise Ellery of Browns, in Surrey, was selling a Grade II listed house for a divorcing couple. "The wife used every tactic to stop us showing the house. First of all it was overpriced. It was kept in a terrible mess or there would be no key when we arrived. It took a year longer to sell than it should have done."