By Eric Adelson, DETAILS
The dream house sits on a hill, with a steep slope of perfect green grass in the front and a golf course in the back. It's 5,600 square feet, six bedrooms, and four and a half baths, nestled on two and a half acres of verdant countryside amid miles of rolling Virginia scenery filled with thoroughbred horses and cute roads named Over the Dam and Shipmadilly. Jon Pieja sank a good chunk of his 401(k) into this house, and it is lovely to behold, throwing a strip of shade over him on a Sunday afternoon as he sits on his patio, sips iced tea, and watches the golf carts go by. Gray Carr Pieja slides open the screen door and says her yoga class is starting in the basement. She's 43 going on 29, capable of making skinny women half her age seem out of shape. Jon, who's 39, nods and waits for the next golfer to stop by for a beer. He'll go fishing with their sons later, after he takes a spin on his Harley. This is the life the couple imagined on the day in 2004 when they moved in. Except for one thing: Jon and Gray Carr Pieja filed for divorce over a year ago.
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Virginia law calls for a 12-month separation prior to an official breakup, but the collapse of the nation's housing market has altered the rules. In St. Petersburg, Florida; Chicago; and Denver, couples find themselves unable to go their separate ways without taking a loss on the value of their homes. "Separation has an immediate economic impact," says Gray Carr's lawyer, Paul Morrison. "Few can afford it. So why not put it off, especially with the real-estate market the way it is now?" When the Piejas split up, Morrison handed each a one-page list of dos and don'ts, forbidding them to cook for each other, do each other's laundry, eat meals together (except on major holidays), or sit together in church. "My mother said it would be The War of the Roses," Gray Carr says. "She said she would find me hanging from the chandelier."
In early April , Jon and Gray Carr take a grand total of 71 minutes to reach a verbal settlement. When the negotiation, which costs less than $600, is complete, Jon says, "Might as well start dating now."
Except for one thing: He still shares a roof with his ex. The house was appraised two years ago at $810,000, but Jon doesn't think it can fetch much more than $725,000. The landscaping and basement renovations cost $100,000. And then there's the other debt: $15,000 on the three cars, $11,000 on his bike, $17,000 on credit cards. He can't just throw up his hands and sell the house for three quarters of a mil. So the Piejas' six-bedroom abode has become a bunch of little homes. The basement, for example, is cool and dark, a stark contrast to the fishbowl upstairs. Gray Carr works in a room in the corner. Jack and Ben play Wii in the main area. Jon exercises in another room. It's almost like a backstage, where everyone privately preps for the sometimes pleasant, sometimes painful interactions above. "All four of us escape down here," Gray Carr says. "It feels like a whole other house."
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In May, when Gray Carr found a farmhouse two miles down the road and signed a lease, it was hard not to concede. It was a quiet end to a quiet separation. Gray Carr agreed to pay Jon a monthly sum to pare down their credit-card debt while he searches for a buyer for the house.
"I was thinking of turning the basement into a Scotch-and-bourbon thing," he had said weeks earlier-with a faint smile. He wasn't exactly looking forward to moving out. Eventually, a young couple will walk into the foyer and marvel at the openness of the place. They will imagine their little ones growing up here, just a short walk from golf and sledding. They will make an offer. And they can only hope their dream house on a hill will see a second marriage as good as its first divorce.
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