In LA, a celeb’s home is his castle…until divorce or death, that is.
“It’s not a product; it’s a home filled with feelings and memories,” says Hilton & Hyland’s Susan Smith, who represented composer Robert Sherman’s 91-year-old Beverly Hills home, which had to be purged of 40 years’ worth of personal belongings—including some choice Disney memorabilia—before it could be sold.
For every LA divorce, there’s a lawyer and a real estate agent on speed dial. Divorce and, ultimately, death are good for business for Realtors, although listings related to those life events tend to be laden with emotional baggage. Sellers may or may not be motivated, but they are definitely excitable. Keeping feelings off the table becomes essential to closing a deal.
“These are life events that force situations irrespective of the market,” says Billy Rose, a founding partner at The Agency. “They all share a characteristic: We need to sell now.” Complicating an already difficult transaction are competing parties whose interests are seldom aligned. Agents must shepherd clients through an often stressful process, from staging to showings to negotiations, while keeping everyone on an even keel. And when the sellers are high-profile and wealthy—Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith recently split after 18 years of marriage and divested their 1.5-acre Hancock Park stunner for a record $15.947 million—the task becomes even more complex, with opposing teams of attorneys, managers, and accountants weighing in.
“Becoming emotional is not usually in the best interest of the sale.” —Sally Forster Jones
When dividing community property, one spouse (usually the one not at the residence) is inevitably keener to close a sale. “It’s a very emotional process that brings out the best and worst in people,” finds Sally Forster Jones, president of Aaroe International Luxury Properties and John Aaroe Group Beverly Hills. A former psychology major, Jones finds that sensitivity, along with neutrality, is essential to maintaining her clients’ confidence. “Divorce is really hard because even when the couple starts out amicably, the situation frequently deteriorates,” explains Jones. (One agent recalls having to call the police to remove one unwilling half of a divorcing celebrity couple from a property in escrow.)
The distrust between parties can result in both engaging their own agents, adding another layer to the negotiations. “Your job, no matter what the clients think of each other, is to get them [what they want] in the shortest period of time,” says Rose. He has found the key is to remain impartial, independent, and “free of the drama.” Often a seller’s memories and identity are bound up in a property— making a sale all the more difficult.
During trust or estate sales, emotional connections can get in the way of prudent decision-making, as well—particularly when there are multiple sellers. (Robin Williams’s heirs famously battled over the late star’s trust, while his $22.9 million Sonoma estate remains on the market after several price reductions.) “When there are various beneficiaries, each may have differing opinions and goals. One heir may not need the proceeds as much as the other. One might want to get [the property] sold faster,” says Jones. Sibling rivalry may surface; exes may want to step in; and in worst-case scenarios, legal action ensues. “Becoming emotional is not usually in the best interest of the sale,” remarks Jones. What’s her best advice to competing heirs in these situations? “Therapy,” she quips.
Even when parties agree, the sale of a family home can be heartrending. Jones recently represented the modern-style, well-sited Trousdale estate of Sid Caesar, the legendary comedian and actor who owned the property for almost 50 years. “It took quite some time and encouragement for the family to go through and sell the property,” she says of that common experience.
“It’s not a product; it’s a home filled with feelings and memories, and that requires more patience and understanding,” adds Hilton & Hyland’s Susan Smith. Earlier this year, Smith represented a Regency-style home in Beverly Hills owned by Robert Sherman, who, along with his brother, Richard, won two Oscars for the music from Mary Poppins and wrote many beloved Disney songs. The 8,152-square-foot updated classic, built in 1924, sold for $9.4 million after staging and the removal of 40 years of personal collections (including some charming Disney memorabilia).
“You’re in a place of confidence. We are that counselor, that advisor, that therapeutic professional,” Rose says of the real estate agent’s frequently challenging, multifaceted role—one that more often than not goes beyond mere dollars and square footage.