Real estate agent Michael Shuster's first experience working with a client in the midst of a divorce was an eye-opener.
It was just over four years ago and the house up for sale was attracting little interest. Two realtors had previously walked away from the client, unwilling to deal with the ex-husband, the lawyers and pressure from the mortgage lender. The client's angry ex-husband called Mr. Shuster at his office repeatedly and yelled at him.
Later the ex showed up at an open house that he wasn't permitted to enter because of restraining order and yelled at Mr. Shuster, whose training in negotiating helped him keep his cool.
"Their bark is worse than their bite," he says. "They just want to be heard."
Today, Mr. Shuster, an agent with Forest Hill Real Estate in Vaughan, Ont., markets himself as "Ontario's First Divorce Specialist." He says almost 80 per cent of his clients are going through a divorce.
For Canadian realtors, focusing on divorce is a small but growing niche. The Canadian Real Estate Association doesn't keep track of specialties, but across the country agents are developing specialties to stand out from the crowd – the number of realtors rose 5.7 per cent to 121,212 at the end of 2016 from a year earlier.
What sets these specialists apart from other realtors is not only an ability to commiserate, but an additional fluency with the financial and legal implications of selling a divorcing couple's home. There can also be interactions with judges, lawyers and hostile family members that set a different tone and urgency to the transaction.
The matrimonial home is often a family's biggest asset and can be a particular point of contention during a divorce. With rising real estate values in many Canadian cities, it's increasingly difficult for one spouse to buy out the other's interest in the home. That's when they have to sell and agents such as Mr. Shuster are called in.
While Mr. Shuster's duties are similar to other realtors, he has experience in dealing with situations particular to divorcing couples. He'll stage a home so it looks like a couple and not a single person is living there and has experience getting two owners to sign off on a transaction when they aren't able to be in the same room together.
Following his own divorce three years ago, Mr. Shuster experienced firsthand the fear and uncertainty his clients were feeling. "After my own experience, the level of compassion and empathy escalated," he says. "Now, when I meet someone going through [divorce], I feel it."
One of his clients, Corinne (she didn't want to give her last name), sold her home with him 21/2 years ago. She says she decided to list with Mr. Shuster because of his special knowledge of her situation. "I felt much better when he left [after that first meeting] that I could do this," she says.
In Canada, there are currently no official designations for a real estate agent who wants to specialize in divorce. In the United States, however, one entrepreneur created the Certified Real Estate Divorce Specialist program, which consists of a four-DVD set and a course guide covering topics that include U.S. taxes and legal issues. Almost 300 American realtors are listed on the program's website as being certified, as well as handful of Canadians.
Judith Muratoff of Royal LePage Brookside Realty in Maple Ridge, B.C., is one of them. Her reason for seeking the certification is a familiar one: "I recently went through a divorce myself."
Ms. Muratoff felt she lacked a niche and wanted to stand out from the 70 other realtors in her office. After finding the certification program online she knew it would be a good fit for her.
She estimates that 20 per cent of her clients have been getting divorced. Part of her marketing strategy is networking through other professionals who cater to divorcees, such as family lawyers and mortgage brokers who specialize in divorce.
Realtors such as Mr. Shuster and Ms. Muratoff are the exception to the rule in Canada. Most realtors working with divorced clients don't have certifications or separate marketing strategies to attract them.
Toronto realtor Katrina McHugh's website doesn't mention the word divorce but she has a paid listing on the referral website thedivorceangels.com. She listed with the referral website after a wave of divorced clients used her services in the same year.
Because Ms. McHugh's parents divorced when she was young and she is divorced herself, she shares her personal experiences with clients.
"You're also being a bit of a psychiatrist," she adds. "They have a comfort level that you've gone through what you're going through."
The 2017 Globe and Mail Small Business Summit is a one-day conference of insightful sessions, proven business growth strategies and innovative ideas from the country's brightest business leaders. Full details at globesummits.ca.