Stephanie and Leo Greenwald. After a divorce, Stephanie purchased a townhouse in Northern Virginia. (Photo by Shauna Boren/PHOTO BY SHAUNA BOREN)

Stephanie Greenwald was surprised to find herself getting divorced, and almost as shocked at how difficult it was to keep her son in the same school district while not overspending on housing costs.

Greenwald couldn’t face uprooting herself and her 5-year-old from the kindergarten where he was making friends. And she couldn’t stomach the idea of moving over the holidays. So she stayed put for about six months and gradually got the tri-level family home ready to sell.

She knew she had to find a new place in Arlington County, where apartments were snapped up quickly.

In the spring of 2011, with her home about to go up for sale, she started posting on Facebook and other social media what she was looking for: a two-bedroom apartment for under $2,000 a month — not a high-rise.

“We have a very active little boy” who needed a neighborhood, not an elevator ride, she said.

Divorce can bring many transitions to both spouses, from untangling music collections to dividing up retirement accounts. When finances are tight or the home value is underwater, many couples postpone a sale, and often they both live in the home, one moving to the basement, according to the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts. Yet about 8 percent of homes purchased last year resulted from changed family circumstances, which includes divorce, according to a National Association of Realtors consumer survey. About 877,000 couples in the United States were divorced or had marriages annulled in 2011, the most recent year for data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

In Greenwald’s case, the three-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot home went on the market and sold quickly. “We had to sell it for less than we bought it for,” she said, because it was purchased in 2007, near the peak of the market.

She felt stressed about finding a new place to live, partly because of another issue familiar to many who have been through divorce. For months, she had a hard time working very many hours as she struggled with depression, so she had little cash available for a move. “I ate up all my savings to pay my part of the bills” in the months after her husband left.

“I really wanted to buy, but I didn’t have the money,” she recalled. She became obsessed with apartment rentals, checking Craigslist “day and night” and talking to friends about what she wanted. “Things went fast in Arlington,” she said, and many homes were out of her price range.

Average apartment rents in Arlington grew by 8 percent in 2010 and an additional 4 percent in 2011, when the average hit $2,090 a month, according to Axiometrics, which tracks apartment data.

Greenwald’s ex-husband found the townhouse she and her son, Leo, moved into. “I went for a walk and looked it over,” she said, and then she saw it was beyond her price range. She grabbed it when the manager agreed to drop the price.

“I had to borrow money on my credit card to get the deposit” on the townhouse, she recalled.

The divorce taught her important lessons, including the value of asking for assistance. “People want to help you,” she says. “Don’t be ashamed to ask.”

When she moved in, she mixed furniture from her married life with some new pieces to create a new feel to the place. She made sure her son’s bedroom was put together first, and she asked friends to help with tasks her ex-husband would have done in previous moves.

She had moved less than two miles from their old home, but it took a while to settle in.

Now, though, Greenwald loves the two-bedroom townhouse so much that when the owner decided to sell it, she jumped at the chance to buy it. Her finances are in better shape, and she found that she qualifies as a first-time home buyer under a local program.

She’s paying $351,000 for the townhouse, below the $375,000 comps in the area, because she’s getting it directly from the seller without an agent.

The closing is scheduled for later this month, the same day her son finishes classes — in the same school he’s attended all along.

“It kind of fell into my lap,” she said.

Elmer is a freelance writer.