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.
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."
The couple met in 1997, in St. Louis, where both had been sent for new-hire training by the medical-supply company Steris. Gray Carr was going through a horrible breakup, and Jon lifted her spirits with an easy smile and a quick joke. "He was young and vivacious," she says. "We hit it off." Jon's version: They met at a bar and hooked up in an elevator that night.
They were a neat match. Gray Carr was raised on a North Carolina tobacco farm and attacked life like a pit bull. Jon came from Jersey and sauntered happily through life like a golden retriever. Mimes for their Georgetown wedding? Sure. A honeymoon in Botswana? Why not? They moved to his home state and then to Cleveland, he for a marketing job, she for one in sales. They had two boys, Jack and Benjamin, and Gray Carr quit to raise them. Then "for better" slid toward "for worse."