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To All the Amateur Lawyers: How Do You Equalize When the House Cost More to Build, Than it’s Currently Worth?

To All the Amateur Lawyers:  How Do You Equalize When the House Cost More to Build, Than it’s Currently Worth?

Anyone who has built their own “dream home” knows that building costs can spiral out of control, and the project can turn into a financial nightmare. This is even more so, when it comes time to divide the value of the home during a divorce. Some very interesting – and legally perplexing — questions can arise, such as this one:

What happens if the value of the home turns out to be less than the money invested in building or renovating it?

That was the question in a case called Strobele v. Strobele. The court summarized the backstory this way:

Really Dr. and Mrs. Strobele have one issue that bedevils a fair resolution of the proceeding. In the final two years of their relationship, they embarked on a project to construct the house of their dreams. They have, between the two of them, spent all of their life savings and more in the construction of this house and, in the process, considerably exceeding the budget for the project. That budget started in the range of six hundred to $700,000 and, by the end of the project, they had put at least twice and perhaps as much as three times that much money into the project which was more money than the two of them had the time. In the process, of course, they have accumulated debt and a great deal of it.

The legal problem that arises from this uncommon dilemma, is that the rules for equalizing net family property on separation do not apply easily to these kinds of scenarios.  The court explained:

[A]lthough the as-built cost of the house is roughly in the neighbourhood of $1.8 million, its market value is roughly $1.2 million. If this situation was brought about by adverse market forces or poor business choices, the consequences would likely be visited upon the parties equally unless one of them engaged in deliberate or wrongful disposition of assets or there were other unusual circumstances, none of which are present here. As a general practice the phrase “for better or worse, for richer or poorer” comes to mind and is applied. But that is not what happened here.

To complicate matters further, the husband wanted to stay in the home, and apparently had access to the financial resources to do so.

For all the “armchair lawyers” among my readership, how would you divide the home’s value?  And if one of the parties wanted to “buy out” out the other, how would that calculation go?

We’ll leave the question as a cliff-hanger, and I’ll share the legal answer and outcome (at least as the judge determined it in this particular case), in my Blog next week.

For the full text of the decision, see:

Strobele v. Strobele, [2005] O.J. No. 6312, 34 R.F.L. (6th) 111

At Russell Alexander, Family Lawyers our focus is exclusively family law, offering pre-separation legal advice and assisting clients with family related issues including: custody and access, separation agreements, child and spousal support, division of family property, paternity disputes, and enforcement of court orders.  For more information, visit us at RussellAlexander.com

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