This article was in the NY Times. Written by: Jen A. Miller Aug. 3, 2018
Buying a home is the biggest financial transaction most people will undertake in their lives. It can also be one of the most emotional.
That’s because while buying or selling a home is, at its base level, an exchange of money for a product, it is also an undertaking suffused with hopes and dreams and, at least in the case of the seller, the memories and experiences rooted in that physical space. Yes, it is often a lot of money. But it can be much more than that — whether the transaction is happening for a good reason, or a wrenching one.
“If I’m selling a house that’s owned by a corporation, it’s not stressful, but this has your life wrapped up in it,” said Pat Vredevoogd Combs, a broker in Grand Rapids, Mich., and past president of the National Association of Realtors. “It isn’t just about the money. It’s about the feelings that go with it all.”
While brokers can be dispassionate about the sale of a property, some sellers have been known to sob through their real estate closings, oblivious to how the outsize display of emotion might look to the buyers. To these sellers, a house is not just four walls that provide shelter.
A great deal of scholarly work has been done that “links memory to space,” said Scott Huettel, chair of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Researchers have studied how a physical space can be tied to memory and, consequently, be imbued with significant value beyond anything monetary.
Dr. Huettel’s field is neuroeconomics, which uses information about our biology and brains to better understand decision-making, especially when it comes to finances. His research has shown that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region at the base of the frontal lobe of the brain, is involved with not just emotion but also reward, motivation and value.
“We have memories and associations that are connected to all of those things that make houses so heavily connected to ourselves,” he said. That might make the place where you grew up, or brought your children home from the hospital, feel invaluable and hard to part with, even though it is ultimately just a physical thing with a price tag attached.
In 2007, Shirley Nebb Hirsch, 62, sold her childhood home in Middlesex, N.J., a three-bedroom, one-bath house that her parents bought in 1943. A decade later, she still gets choked up talking about it. Her father died in 1996 and her mother in 2001, but she and her sisters waited six years to sell the house because it meant so much to them.
In those interim years, she and her sisters “still went there and put up a Christmas tree,” said Ms. Hirsch, a property manager who lives in Freehold, N.J. They let another relative stay there for a few years rent-free just to make sure that someone was in the house to look after it.
“There was talk of one of us buying it, but it wasn’t practical, for geographic reasons mostly,” she said. “We realized that the home needed to be lived in and loved.”
That is why they eventually sold it — to a person who lived one town over and had asked a few times if they would let him know if it ever went up for sale.
“It’s been hard to see the changes, but there’s not much you can do,” Ms. Hirsch said. “It’s their home and they can do with it as they please.”
Selling a house because of a death, breakup or divorce can make the already fraught process even more emotional and complicated. With houses being sold because of divorce, “there’s a lot of anxiety for all parties, not just the people getting the divorce, but the buyers are apprehensive about what’s the house going to look like when they move in,” Mrs. Vredevoogd Combs said, because the sellers might not take the same kind of care moving out of the house that they would have if it had been a place of happy memories.
In some cases, bad memories can actually impart negative value to a home for a seller.
Lauren Aquino, 33, sold her co-op in Staten Island in 2015 after a breakup with her fiancé, who had lived with her in the apartment. She liked the physical space and location because it was an easy commute to her job and also near her family, but she didn’t want to live surrounded by those memories anymore. In fact, she eventually left the state and went to Florida for two years. “I needed to get out,” she said.
Fortunately, the unit sold quickly. Her sister had just sold a similar unit in the same building, and the broker was able to call people who had made offers on her sister’s unit. She wanted to be so far away from it that she even signed the power of attorney over to her parents so they could handle the closing on her behalf.
Ms. Aquino has since moved back from Florida for a job as an insurance broker. She rented in Staten Island for a while, and is now about to buy a house in Keyport, N.J., which has been an entirely different real estate experience than her first purchase.
“When I bought the place in Staten Island, I wasn’t really looking to buy anything. I just happened to know there was a unit for sale,” she said. This time, she was actively looking, and the process has been “a lot more pleasurable and fun,” she said. “I’m fully enjoying it and don’t have the stress of a bad relationship around my neck.”
Keyport, she said, has a “nice small-town feeling,” and the house has a yard for the dog she hopes to adopt in the near future. “The permanence of it is what’s scary now,” she said, although it is also a comfort, after moving around a lot.
For Melita Mayor, 46, the small-town feeling of Keyport is precisely what made the decision to leave so hard. She and her husband are selling their home there to move to a bigger house in nearby Middletown, N.J.
“It’s emotional, because we do love the town. We love the community. We love being able to walk to the waterfront and walking with the kids to get our ice cream,” said Ms. Mayor, an office manager. But the house, which her husband bought before they were married, is too small for their family.
“My husband has his own business, so right now his office is in the living room,” she said. “With three boys” — their sons are now 3, 5 and 8 — “we just need that little extra space.”
While the new place is exciting, the stress of moving, combined with the sadness at having to leave behind the home where they started their family, has been wearing. “I’ve been anxious from the beginning of the whole process,” she said.
That anxiety has been compounded by the looming need to declutter — “I feel like we live in a museum,” she said — and the fact that the house sold much faster than they anticipated, shortening the time they had to find a new home.
When the process is extremely stressful — if the house isn’t selling, or offers are coming in well below what the sellers feel the house is worth — leaning on a broker can help, said Mrs. Vredevoogd Combs.
Helping clients work through the emotional aspect of a real estate transaction is part of a broker’s job, she added: “They need somebody who is steady and knows the business and can remain calm as the storms roll around us,” especially in markets where real estate prices are in flux.
And don’t be surprised if the emotion continues to bubble up, even after the transaction is completed, especially if you are selling a deceased relative’s property. “It’s a little bit like grief,” Mrs. Vredevoogd Combs said. “You don’t know when it’s going to hit you. It just does.”
Dr. Huettel said that it was impossible to try to turn something like buying or selling a home into a cold, emotionless, solely financial transaction. Our brains simply won’t let us. “You can’t just be dispassionate about value and cut off all the memories and evidence that have accumulated,” he said.
He urged buyers and sellers to feel their feelings, whatever they are. You’ll be better off if you do, he said: “Emotions aren’t a bad thing. They’re an important part of a healthy life, and we just can’t suppress them. They’re important for constructing what’s important to us.”
Instead of ignoring or hiding your feelings about buying or selling a house, try reappraisal.
“If you have to move, it is entirely healthy to think about not just the wonderful memories you have in the house but also the limitations of the things that were imperfect, the challenges of living in an area and the benefits of a new area,” he said. “Focusing on the limitations might make it easy to drop something and focus on the advantages of the new thing.”