Over the years, when I have taught Realtors about the senior market and how to be active agents in that service, we discuss the emotional conflicts that arise within families and the resulting family wars that can happen. When there is conflict between family members, it is not usually about recent grievances – it is almost always about something in the past. Or as I like to call it, the “little red wagon”.

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I once worked with family members who had a lifetime quarrel with each other because one of them received a little red wagon for their birthday while the other did not. The little red wagon started as a source of contention and grudge-holding between them that festered and grew well into their relationship as adult siblings.

One day, I got a phone call from an heir to a commercial property inquiring about the market value of a building that had been in the family for six decades. This might not sound very complicated, but the intricate web of family emotions and disagreements became very elaborate when I learned that the heir shared ownership of the building with two other cousins. All three were estranged from one another, all disgruntled with each other and in no uncertain terms were they speaking to each other. The only thing the three senior cousins could agree on was that they wanted to sell the property.

It originally belonged to three brothers who had been very close. Two of them were business partners while the third was a silent investor. They had grown their business together to acquire their own freestanding factory back in the 1960s.

The three first cousins who had inherited the factory, each an heir of the three brothers, had not spoken directly to each other in many years. They just did not like each other. After getting involved I could piece together snippets of childhood misgivings and grudges, and ultimately, the far-too-familiar theme of the little red wagon and deep-festering jealousy.

I met with the cousins and, despite their animosity towards each other, I found them to be lovely people that I enjoyed talking to. This issue should have resulted in an easy, peaceful outcome but they were closed to the concept that their cousins could be nice people as well.

In addition to family strife, there were outside complications including a long-standing tenant and some contamination in the soil. The property was not that easy to sell but I did find a strong buyer who was going to pay top dollar. The issue was getting the cousins to agree. We came to a standstill because when one signed, then the other two automatically wanted to reject it.

I decided to deal with the angriest and most difficult of the three. Unless we got into the topic of his family, we got along very well. If I mentioned the family, he went into a rant.

Thankfully, I had spent two semesters at the University of Toronto many years ago to become an arbitrator and mediator and that experience has always helped me tremendously with clients. I learned a lot and practiced what I was taught.

I sat with the angriest cousin and said, “I guess that you thrive on the anger and hate toward your cousins so much that you do not want to make this sale, as you need to wake up each morning with that anger festering.” He looked at me in a puzzled way. He was adamant that he wanted nothing to do with his cousins.

And this is what I told him: “This offer that I have before you immediately cuts all ties to your family on the day of closing. Once you sign and the deal is done you never have to see them again, your choice. But, emotionally, you cannot let go, you just need that anger. So, either you detest them and want to hang on to that emotion or you cut the cord now.”

That was what he needed to move forward. He was an educated man and thought it over and told me that I may be right. It would be best to move on, to cut all contact and he agreed that the price was good. He was to receive a fair amount of dollars before taxes.

The deal was done, it closed and from what I know he has never crossed paths with his cousins again.

This experience reinforced for me that family wars are not about the here and now and often they are a result of old wounds, some going back to childhood. An experienced professional Realtor finds the root of the problem and then sells the real estate. The role of a successful agent is to identify the desired outcome from clients who do not communicate well with each other.

My best piece of advice? A Realtor is not a family counsellor and while the task may include mediation, the goal is to find the most efficient path to helping everyone feel heard and get what they want without trying to fix a lifetime of family strife, family wars and a case of the little red wagon.

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Barry Lebow, FRI, Master-ASA, ABR, SRES, is one of Canada’s most recognized real estate authorities. Now in his 54th year of professional real estate, Barry has been honoured by many real estate associations for his work in the profession. He has testified in more than 500 trials across North America. He is the founder of the Accredited Senior Agent designation program. A teacher, trainer and educator, he is an active broker at Re/Max Ultimate Realty in Toronto. Contact Barry by email.

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