The Telegraph

Saturday 25 September 1999

A house divided

Divorce is a bitter business - not least because of battles over the family home. Tim Lott has had to move from a big house to a cramped flat. Here he describes how it feels to take a sudden slide down the property ladder

by Tim Lott
The Daily Telegraph/Electronic Telegraph (London, UK)

I am sitting writing this article in my tiny, 8ft x 6ft, office. It is an unconventional office, since its principal occupants, other than me, are a selection of fluffy creatures with pleading eyes, a sizeable bunk bed decorated with Barbie stickers, and a giant yellow teapot, in which live a number of unappealing plastic homunculi.

My office, in short, is in my children's bedroom. My two little girls stick Jelly Tots on the computer, make paper aeroplanes out of screenplay contracts and spill paint pots on first drafts of intended novels.

It is not the ideal place out of which to generate an income, particularly one which has to take into account a substantial bill for maintenance for my children and soon-to-be-former wife. But when you get, or are getting divorced, you have to learn to make adjustments when it comes to property.

As a matter of fact, I'm one of the lucky ones. Although the flat I now live in, a small two-bedder, hardly compares for space with the three-storey, seven-room terrace I had lived in for the eight years before I separated from my wife, many men - and increasingly, women - find themselves living in far more radically altered circumstances. Separation and divorce frequently means a journey from a comfortable family house to a bed-sit, or even homelessness.

I'm fortunate because there is enough money to ensure that both myself and my former partner are properly housed. Also, our separation has been a (relatively) civilised affair, in which we are both keen to co-parent the children, and to recognise our mutual property needs.

Now the family house has been sold, and my ex has moved to premises not much larger than mine, so I do not at the moment feel that I have been treated unfairly. But in many more acrimonious divorces, or divorces in which the size of the property pot is smaller, one or other of the partners can find themselves dispossessed, to the extent of having nowhere to look after their children even on a part-time basis.

It is usually the man who is affected because the law tends to view mothers as "natural" parents, who, therefore, have first claim on the family home. The restructuring of living arrangements after a divorce is bad news for just about everybody, since even the person who gets the lion's share of the property is liable to have to make do with somewhere smaller, or in a less salubrious area.

In fact, there is only one sector of society - other than lawyers - for whom the breakdown of the family unit is beneficial: estate agents. It is impossible to be sure how many property transactions in Britain are triggered by divorce or separation, since vendors and purchasers are not necessarily going to mention the reason for their moves to the firm that is handling the sale. But with divorce rates at around 40 per cent, it is not unreasonable to infer that it is by far the biggest single cause of what might be called "enforced" property sales (the others, lagging some way behind, are death and debt).

"Family breakdown, although it is very sad, is actually good business for estate agents," says Howard Elsten, of the London agency, Strutt and Parker. "I should think that it accounts for a good 20 per cent of all house sales. I know of many people, primarily men, who have moved out of large properties into bed-sits or studio flats. A lot of people have to move down the ladder, and it produces are considerable stimulus to the market for smaller flats.

"There are also wider implications for the property market, generally. The proliferation of smaller households as a result of break-ups is one of the factors leading to a housing shortage and a building boom. "There are plans to build up to four million new homes in the countryside, and I would think this is not unconnected with the break-up of the family unit."

This veritable boom for estate agents comes fuelled by, at ground level, pain, bitterness, anger and - many would say - injustice. The battle for property usually starts the moment it is recognised that the relationship is over. Many lawyers will advise their clients not to leave the family home until the divorce is finalised.

Nevertheless, sooner or later the pressure of living with someone while effectively separated often becomes unbearable, and one or the other of the partners will move out. This person is most frequently, but not always, the man. In many cases, he will find himself living in rented accommodation or even on friends' floors.

"At the top end of the market," says Ian Mackay, of the pressure group Families Need Fathers, "one gets the west wing and the other the house in the grounds. More realistically, the mother gets the local authority tenancy transferred to them. At this end of the scale, divorce often makes men homeless. In a middle-class situation, the property and maintenance follow the children, and the mother in most cases gets the children. The father can finish up in a garage and the mother can have a five-bedroom house.

"In the case of my own divorce, I had a three-bedroom house, which I had to remortgage so that my wife could buy a place more or less for cash. The courts will, in the first instance, give priority to housing children with the primary carer, and the primary carer is almost inevitably the mother."

Legal professionals, although often recognising cultural biases in court decisions, are not convinced that the law itself is biased towards either parties. "I don't think there's a gender issue here," says the family practitioner, Lea Harris. "There is an acknowledgement in law that fathers matter. But if there isn't enough money to go around, the priority will be given to the primary carer, who is usually the mother.

"There are many cases in which the non-primary carer finds themself in much reduced circumstances. If there is only enough capital to rehouse mum, dad has to live in a bed-sit."

Although the idea of equal parenting is enshrined in the Children Act of 1989, which states that it would encourage shared parenting whenever possible, this has simply not come about. Lea Harris has herself achieved two shared-residency orders in her career, and they have both been subsequently overturned. The implications of this are that the property settlement is always likely to favour one party over another.

"Co-parenting is rare in this country," says Ms Harris. "It's an American concept. Courts don't consider shared residency best for the children. And they may be wrong. But there isn't really enough evidence either way.

"Nevertheless, there is no doubt that men's attitude to parenting has changed. They are far more likely to want to be involved, and this makes the break much more difficult than it used to be. There is nothing fair about the system at all. You do what you can with the limited material available."

  • Tim Lott is a novelist and writer. His latest work 'White City Blue' (Viking, £9.99) is a black comedy about a London estate agent.

    How David and Susan lost their homes - and families

    "David", 56, a financial advisor, separated from his wife after 18 years. He now lives in a rented one-bedroom flat, despite having seven children with whom he has a strong wish to remain actively involved. His former wife lives in a five-bedroom house, with several acres, stables and a pool.

    "She didn't want me to carry on with the family," he says. "There was a great level of hostility. She was keen that I shouldn't have anywhere appropriate to stay because that would make it more difficult for me to have them. If you are in that situation, the courts are very indulgent towards women and mothers, and fathers end up with a raw deal."

    This situation is a problem largely for men, who, according to Ian Mackay of Fathers Need Families, remain the sole or primary breadwinner in 66 per cent of married households. However, with more and more women going out to work and being prepared to leave the family home, it is far from an exclusively male dilemma.

    "Susan", a consultant, who has two children approaching teenage years, had her divorce finalised a year ago. "A battle of wills took place between myself and my husband over who was going to leave the family home," she says.

    "We spent a year in the house together after we decided to separate. My husband wore me down in the end, and I had to leave because I felt it was bad for the children to see us at war. It was horrible, intolerable.

    "I then spent two years homeless, living with friends, and having nowhere to stay with the children. When the divorce came through, I was judged for being the one who abandoned the family, although I hadn't at all, so I ended up with only about 25 per cent of the property."

    Yet it is usually the man who finds himself in this situation. Steve Fitzgerald, of the men's group, Mankind, which describes itself as "pro-family equality in health, education workplace and the law", says: "When a man goes into the divorce courts, he's deprived of his human rights.

    "It's always assumed that the woman will retain the property," says Fitzgerald, who is 54 and a happily married father of four. "What should happen is that it should be sold, and split down the middle. The interests of the children are meant to be paramount. This means both parents should have a place big enough to look after their children, not just cram the father into a bed-sit, which reduces his opportunities to see his children."

    © Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 1999.