Housing boom mirrors marriage break-ups

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The Independent Online
IF THE value of your house has risen by 20 per cent in the past two years, don't crack open the champagne too soon if you're married. Because you soon might not be.

It is often only when the property market picks up that couples file for divorce. Sad as it may seem, some partners have been staying together for the sake of the house.

One consequence of the property crash of the 1990s was that couples who did not want to carry on living together had to do so, stuck in a house nobody wanted to buy. "People were trapped with their spouses under the same roof even after the marriage had well and truly broken down. The reality was that they simply could not sell the family home," said William Longrigg, of solicitors Charles Russell.

But recently there has been a noticeable change. "Most people are now finding they can sell their homes for more than they paid," said Mr Longrigg. "This is vital, as there has to be enough in the kitty to provide two smaller properties for Him and Her."

There are so many divorcees living in Fulham, west London, that the area is known among divorce lawyers as "Fulham final settlement". The family home in Kensington and Chelsea is sold for a sum that buys one house in Fulham for the wife and children and a one-bedroomed flat in the City. "The trend is that couples whose marriages have broken down move to areas of London which are broadly 'one down' the property scale from where they were before," said Mr Longrigg.

Richard Gayner, a director at the property consultants Savills, said: "I'm sure that when the market is in recession people cling to the wreckage and they don't actually think about anything but survival. When the house is worth a lot people can see that they can chop the money in half and go and buy somewhere else."

Of course, estate agents prosper from the "three D's: death, debt and divorce", he added. "When people die we get executor sales, when people have heavy debt we have receivership sales and when people divorce, it's self explanatory."

The trend is accentuated by recent court cases which established that the husband also has the right to a decent home after the break-up, even if the children and mother still come first. Over the past three years Tom Trudgian, managing director of Stern Studios, which specialises in one-bedroom apartments in London, has witnessed a rise in customers who are divorced fortysomethings.

"No one got divorced in the recession. If you can't sell the family home you're stuck together," he said. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of his divorced customers are men.

Richard Sax, former chairman of the Solicitors Family Law Association, which encourages both sides to make amends without too much debt (or acrimony), said: "It's difficult. The first issue you would discuss when someone comes in for divorce, particularly if they've got children, is: 'Where are you going to live?' Then the husband gets told he's going to live in a dog house somewhere and is to go straight away."

But boom times only precipitate divorces that were on the cards anyway, Mr Sax added. "I have no doubt that when the property market is going up it's easier to have a divorce, but it's only amongst people whose marriages are already on the rocks.

"When you can't sell and you can't buy it doesn't make a lot of sense to divorce. You grit your teeth and wait."

The evidence for this phenomenon is entirely anecdotal. However, in property circles, the equations are well-known. One Kensington house equals one Fulham house and one City flat; one Clapham house equals one Streatham house and one Tooting house; one Fulham house equals one Battersea house and one Balham house.