Category Archives: Real Estate Buyers

What’s A Comp And Why Should You Care?

Sample Comparable Search in Woodland, CA

Two recent posts from my friend Jamie Owen at the Cleveland Appraisal Blog plus a planned realtor office visit inspired me to write this. Jamie did a great job blowing up the myth that comparable sales need to be within one mile of the subject in this post. He also tackled geographical competency, or the need to have boots on the ground knowledge about a market in order to credibly value properties in a second post.

Both posts touch on the subject of what is a comparable sale and why should anyone in real estate, or even the general public, care? The quick answer is that “comps” are the basis for how we, both those in the real estate industry and the man on the street, value residential real estate.

Per the Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal, 3rd Edition, comparables are:

…similar property sales, rentals, or operating expenses used for comparison in the valuation process; also called comps.

Comps are used in the Sales Comparison Approach to Value, especially in residential real estate appraisal. All of us, appraisers, real estate agents, and folks considering buying a home, use the theory of substitution to determine the value of a home. What would the typical buyer shopping in that neighborhood buy instead of the subject?

A comparable sale is a sale of a home that the typical buyer of the subject would buy instead of the subject.

Subconsciously, everyone who owns a home compares it to homes in their neighborhood. We learn about a recent sale on our block and place a price on ours based on whether we think it’s better than ours, relatively similar, or inferior.  The formal version of this is the sales comparison approach used by appraisers.

We appraisers find the most similar sales, adjust the comparables for differences from the subject, leaving each adjusted comparable sale an indicator of value for the subject. The vast majority of single family residential appraisals in the US rely upon this methodology.

In the context of the sales comparison approach to value, the key is to identify the comps for the subject.

The easiest way to get the value of a single family residence wrong is to get the comps wrong!

As my mentor George Dell says, “What does similar mean?
(Now go subscribe to his blog. He’s really smart. Then take his classes)

Residential real estate, such as a house, a condominium, a home on a small acre lot outside of town, etc., have characteristics (“dimensions”) that serve as descriptions of a specific sale for a specific property. The more similarities between a sale and the subject under consideration, the better a comp. We can go into a deep dive, like George does in his classes; instead, I want to talk about what I do specifically for simple single family residential work in conforming neighborhoods.

Some examples of dimensions and characteristics important to valuing homes include transaction terms (financing, credits, etc.), motivations, location, views, quality, design, condition/age, floor area, and amenities.

Some dimensions/characteristics are more important than others and can vary dramatically in importance depending upon the location. For example, pools are valuable in the Sacramento region but have less value in the Pacific Northwest where the weather is cooler. Basements are common in the Midwest and East Coast but not so here. In the Whisper Creek Subdivision in Arbuckle, CA, a tract of large homes on half acre lots, RV parking is a significant factor unlike other nearby markets. This is why the geographical competency that Jamie discusses is so important. Appraisers with geographical competency understand what characteristics define a true comparable and get the subject’s value right.

Time usually matters except when it doesn’t. If a market is rapidly changing, using the most recent sales can reduce the impact of market change. When a market is relatively stable, time is less important and so using older comparables is reasonable. I downplay time frequently because time is usually the easiest and most reliable adjustment to make.

For a typical tract home in my area, the most important factors are motivations for the purchase or sale, time, location/proximity, and size/floor area. I start with a map search using my neighborhood boundaries and go back 12 months prior to the date of value for closed sales. I exclude from consideration REO sales, short sales, and other transactions where motivations likely had an impact on sale price.

I search for homes a little smaller than the subject because most buyers can make do with a slightly smaller home. Because the typical buyer can accept a larger home than the subject, I set the upper boundary on my floor area range wider than the lower bound. For example, if the subject has 2300 sf of living space, I will search for comparables with 2000 sf to 2800 sf of living space (300 sf smaller to 500 sf larger).

After I set my criteria in the MLS search, I run the search and review the results.

Metrolist Search Results
Search Results

I mentally draw a box around the subject’s important characteristics so I can place it in the competitive market. This is known as bracketing. Reasonably, would the typical buyer consider the sales found suitable substitutes for the subject? Are the sales similar in quality and design? Are there differences in lot size or age? Do I have larger and smaller homes? Do I have homes in similar condition, or inferior and superior? I try to account for every significant characteristic of the subject so I can show, by comparison, the value of the subject by using these comparables.

If I’m comfortable with the sales found, I can start my adjustments analysis. If not, I revise my search criteria and run the search again until I am happy that the sales found reasonably describe the subject.

Once I have my initial candidate comparable sales identified, I dig in and look for most representative comparables of the subject and decide on which sales to research further (view the exterior, contact agents involved in the transaction, etc.). I review outliers, sales outside the normal range, and try to determine why the sales deviate from the norm. I either adjust for the issue or remove the outlier from consideration. The remaining comps, after adjustment, are my indicators of value for the subject.

Comps are usually easy to find in conforming neighborhoods as long as the subject is similar to the rest of the neighborhood. When the subject is unusual, or when there are few sales available and they are all different (“non-conforming”), comparable selection is difficult. The appraisal becomes complex and beyond the scope of this article. I do have tips in my article about appraising complex residential properties.

How do you search for comparables? What are some tips for a real estate agent or new appraiser you can share?

Why You Should Join An Appraisal Organization Especially Now

Is history doomed to repeat itself?
Is history doomed to repeat itself?

I’ve posted the full version of my article Why You Should Join An Appraisal Organization with links to the organizations mentioned in the article. Now is an important time for the residential appraisal industry to join together because of threats to our place in the US real estate market. We need to spread the word of the role of appraisers, especially to federal regulators who want to diminish our standing.

If you haven’t heard, federal financial oversight groups such as the FDIC, Federal Reserve, and others have proposed changing the de minimus for residential lending in the US from $250,000 to $400,000. This is exactly the wrong time to reduce oversight in residential real estate given widespread signs nationally of markets slowing and potentially nearing a peak. Did we learn nothing in the last market crash?

Ryan Lundquist has an excellent summary on his blog (link). I strongly encourage you to sign the petition started by Ryan and Jonathan Miller at change.org (link) and to comment in the federal register about why this is a bad idea.

The Role of the Appraisal in Residential Real Estate Lending

I had the opportunity to write an article for my local paper, the Woodland Daily Democrat. Here’s what I came up with:

The Role of the Appraisal in Residential Real Estate Lending

Most of the time when you buy a house or refinance your existing residential loan, the lender will require an appraisal of your house. What is an appraisal? An appraisal is an independent opinion of value about real estate. In this context, the appraisal is a report that describes the subject, the subject’s neighborhood, includes at least one of the three approaches to value used by us appraisers, and includes the market value of the subject home on a given date. The client for an appraisal, even if the borrower pays for the appraisal, is the lender. I write my residential appraisals for lenders, not buyers or borrowers.

Residential real estate lending appraisals use a standard definition of market value from FNMA (https://www.fanniemae.com/content/guide/selling/b4/1.1/01.html for reference).

Key points from the FNMA market value definition:

  • “Most probable price”-My values are not the highest value possible, not the contract price, not the amount you need to complete your refinance. It’s the value supported by evidence in the subject’s competitive market.
  • “Buyer and seller are typically motivated”-Market value assumes no unusual motivations like short sale, foreclosure sale, sale to a relative, etc.

When deciding whether to loan hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone, the lender will evaluate the borrower’s credit history, income, and expenses. My appraisal will be included as part of the lender’s risk assessment. If the lender were to take back the subject home today, how much would the subject be worth? Is the subject worth more than the loan? Are there any issues that would make it difficult to resell? Are there any obvious repairs that might reduce the value of the subject long term? Are there any obvious safety issues that might open the lender up to liability? My appraisal helps the lender with these questions.

Us appraisers serve as a check for over-exuberance in the residential real estate market. The real estate agents and loan officer get commissions only if the loan closes. The lender makes money only if it makes a loan. The seller gets paid only if the home sells. The buyer gets a house only if the loan closes. Since I get paid whether the loan funds or not, the underwriter and I are the only truly independent parties in the typical residential transaction. The lender relies on me to report any issues with the home and to honestly arrive at my opinion of value. If my appraised value is above the amount needed for the loan amount, and there are no other issues, the lender can move forward with the loan with confidence. In those cases where my opinion of market value is lower than needed to fund the loan, my report warns the lender that the loan may be risky.

The independence of the residential real estate appraiser is vital with the housing market crash of the 2000s fresh in mind. We don’t want to go through that again.

Anything to add? What did I miss?

(I’ll add a link to the article once it’s published)