By Zoe Dare Hall
Colour-coding stairways and separate wings: rising living costs are trapping divorcees under one roof
Sara*, a company director from east London, is relieved to be able to make her next property move thanks to the Bank of Mum and Dad — or just mum, in her case. Sara is no twentysomething trying to get her first foot on the ladder. She’s a 45-year-old in the throes of divorce. And her mother, aged 77, is providing the finance that will enable her to keep her three-bedroom terraced house where she lives with her two children.
“My mum has been helping me with legal costs, keeping up with mortgage payments, a bit of extra money for the kids. She downsized recently and has given me access to about £350,000 so that I can buy out my ex-husband,” Sara explains.
She is far from alone in needing elderly parents to help to fund her divorce. Since no-fault divorces were introduced in England and Wales last April, removing the need for separating couples to play the blame game or stay together for two years until they can start divorce proceedings, 2023 is set to herald a 23 per cent spike in the divorce rate — the biggest rise in more than 50 years, the global professional services company PwC predicts.
But in a climate of rising living costs, the emotions involved in moving on may pale in comparison with the financial reality of starting again as a single person. More than a third of couples considering divorce will stay together due to the cost of living crisis, according to research by the law firm Stowe Family Law. Meanwhile, a recent survey by the property portal Zoopla found that 34 per cent of couples who co-own a home with their partner and then split up are forced to continue to live together for 1.3 years on average because they can’t afford their own property.
Selling the family home, however, is rarely the most cost-efficient strategy, says Kate Daly, co-founder of Amicable, a divorce advisory service. “It means selling costs and two lots of buying costs. I’m seeing lots of cases of the Bank of Mum and Dad where the parents are in their eighties and their children are in their fifties, [and the former are] stepping in to allow their children to stay in the property.”
Other separating couples are finding innovative ways of dividing their property to accommodate two lifestyles. Laura Mortimer, a family lawyer at BP Collins Solicitors, mentions a client in her sixties who still lives with her ex — and his long-term partner — in separate areas of the house.
Unable to sell their high-end listed Buckinghamshire property for a price that works for them — “both parties are retired, it’s their sole asset and there’s no other sensible option that isn’t financially punitive to both of them,” Mortimer explains — they have redrawn the floorplan. “We worked out which rooms, staircases and entrances each party would solely use and colour-coded them to help them avoid crossing paths with each other and any guests or new partners,” Mortimer says.
“They don’t see it as a permanent solution but my client feels an obligation to her adult children to preserve as much of the marital wealth as they can pass on to the next generation,” she adds. “They’ve had to agree on a range of practicalities, including their contributions to the bills, and promise each other not to go into the other person’s ‘section’ of the house when they are not in.”
Anto Clay of the search agent Stacks Property Search, in Monmouthshire, thinks that tricky as such arrangements are, they will become more common in a climate of rising selling, buying and living costs. He mentions examples of divorcing couples trying to share the family home. “One couple split the home so that they each had a bedroom, bathroom and living space, but they continued to share a kitchen and would all eat together when the children were at home. They continued with the set-up for decades after they divorced.”
Some divorcing couples agree to delay the sale of the property until, say, the children leave home — an arrangement known as a Mesher order. “We’re seeing more of this as people can’t afford to buy out their ex-partner and they are scared to remortgage in case the renewal rate is higher. Unless they are in a desperate or crisis situation, people are trying to sit still,” Daly says.
Others find the answer lies in nesting, where the children stay in the family home and the parents take it in turns to live there. Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, revealed recently that her husband, whom she is divorcing, lives in their Manchester home with their sons while she is in London and she takes his place from Thursdays to Sundays.
Nesting comes with its complexities and the high costs of maintaining multiple homes. It calls for tolerant new partners too. But it worked for Toby Hazlewood, a 47-year-old cyber security project manager, when he and his ex-wife separated in 2006, when their daughters were aged six and three.
For the first decade each parent rented a home in Sale, Greater Manchester — Hazlewood’s rent was £750 a month — where they would each live with the girls every other week. Their flats sat empty on alternate weeks when they returned to their new spouses and family lives.
“We decided to explore nesting as a way of cutting costs and to ease the constant moving back and forth for our daughters,” Hazlewood says. “It seemed logical to have one home with a spare room for the ‘parent of the week’, and each of us would move in and out for alternate weeks.”
The ex-couple rented a three-bedroom flat that they would each use, and split the bills. “It required a lot of compromise but it worked because it put the kids’ needs to the fore and it helped us to cut our costs too, by about £500 a month between us, which eased the pressure for each of us in our lives away from the kids,” Hazlewood adds.
No level of wealth, of course, is immune to the upheaval of divorce. While Blackpool, where the average house price is £143,000, has the highest rate of divorce (43 per cent) in the country — according to research by Savills estate agency — Craig Fuller, a buying agent at Stacks Property Search in the Cotswolds, says 40 per cent of the high-end country houses he deals with that are coming on to the market are due to divorce. “Some of them have had a huge amount of money spent on them to make them ‘for ever homes’,” he says. “Property transactions with vendors who are going their separate ways can be tricky as there is often some disagreement on price and/or timing and buyers need to tread carefully.”
The super-rich, though, have their distinct ways of handling matters. Camilla Dell, managing partner at the buying agency Black Brick, found herself looking for £50 million houses for one divorcing wife, then preparing her for court “so she understood the property market and running costs better and was prepared for cross-examination,” Dell says.
Jo Eccles, founder of Eccord, a prime London buying agency, deals with the kind of divorcees who are looking for rental properties in Belgravia with space for their children, nannies and a chef. “Space for staff is something that high-net-worth divorcees aren’t willing to relinquish as their support network becomes even more precious and they want to keep things as normal as possible for the children,” she says.
Eccles adds that another of her clients, who won joint custody of his four children, wanted a family home within easy reach “by Tube, foot or chauffeur” of their four schools and good access to Farnborough airport — which has a private terminal — in Hampshire for himself. She says: “We rented a beautiful house in Kensington for him for £50,000 a month.”