Should I Stay or Should I Go? Is the Marital Home Worth Fighting Over in a Divorce?

“Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble… And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know… Should I stay or should I go?”

The immortal lyrics penned by The Clash always swirl through my head when I’m faced with the sticky question of discussing with a client who should get the marital home in the divorce.

There are all kinds of reasons people want to keep their home.  People like their home.  Their kids have grown up in the house and are attached to it, the neighborhood and their friends.  Moving is a big hassle and it can mean a longer work commute, loss of a friendly neighborhood, and maybe even your kids’ school.

And there are always reasons why your spouse shouldn’t get the house.  Maybe you are the more responsible homeowner and your ex never did any of the housecleaning or decorating; you just loved the house more; your spouse never mowed the lawn or… and you see how this little discussion goes. There are a hundred other reasons why you feel you should stay home and your ex should move.

Divorce is basically all about hard transitions and loss, and one of the more poignant losses can be that of losing your home.  When both spouses are attached to the marital house, figuring out who gets it can be one of the hardest decisions to make emotionally.  Unfortunately, that’s exactly the wrong way to figure this type of question out – emotionally.  When people are busy fighting over the house and the fight is being driven by their emotions, all too many of them forget that keeping the house can also be the most financially risky decisions you can make in a divorce.

It may be in your best interests to leave.

There are many statistics about what happens financially to divorcing spouses, and one of the worst financial decisions a person can make is tying themselves to a residence that doesn’t make sense financially.  Most people analyze it like this: I could never get an apartment for the cost of my mortgage, so staying here is best.  That analysis is completely wrong, because a mortgage is only a part of the expense of owning a home, even when the payment includes taxes and insurance.

Most people forget about the small things like lawn services, snow removal, or house cleaning, because they figure they can do that themselves. But the real expenses are the ones you can’t escape.  Like the fact that your energy needs are proportionate to the size of the house and how well insulated it is. Things break and repairs are expensive, like HOA fees, and community fence/pool levees.

If you’re divorcing and facing this question, you might want to start by taking a look at what emotional factors will be distracting you from making the best choice for you and your family.  Emotionally, there are several strong factors that generally come into play, especially if you are of a mindset that losing your home is a thought you can almost not bear.  Your attachment to your home can be almost visceral.  A home can represent years of small investments – the garden you’ve nurtured for years; the kitchen you finally properly organized; the neighbors your children have grown up with.

And don’t forget the emotion of hating the thought of your spouse having something you want.

But keeping a house that is even a bit too expensive has long-term devastating financial consequences.  Most experts agree that a house should not be considered an investment because the returns are too low and the cost of ownership is approximately four times the purchase price over the years you own a house.

Being house rich and cash poor is a terrible idea and can lead, especially for people divorcing later in life where the ability to financially recovery is more limited, to late-life financial crises.

So, if you find yourself in the dilemma where your heart is telling you that you want the house (or, as the case may be, screaming that message) before you decide to fight tooth and nail to get the house, it would be prudent to take some time to step back and assess if keeping the house is really in your best long-term interests. Take a look at websites like Nerdwallet or Investopedia, or consult a neutral financial advisor for long-term financial planning.

People are emotional about why they want to keep their home, and their arguments are often compelling.  But all too often, the price of keeping the house is only realized years after the fact when it’s too late to make a wiser decision.  There are many tails that wag the dog in a divorce, but a long drawn out battle over who gets the house shouldn’t be one of them.