Zillow – Still Not Good Enough

Glenview homeowner sues Zillow over 'sloppy' estimate

In 2014, I wrote a blog post about Zillow and I decided it’s time to turn my attention back to this again. Today, Zillow is still very much in the news and a big player in the world of home values. 

​What caught my eye in 2014 was a blog post written by another appraiser in Philadelphia (Michael Coyle of The Coyle Group) who had compared 20 of his company’s appraisal values to Zillow’s value estimate (with similar results to mine). This inspired me to do my own study and the results were pretty surprising (click here for more info on my study). Which brings me to an interesting article on ChicagoBusiness.com that popped into my feed today: According to the Crain’s article, a homeowner has decided to sue Zillow “alleging that the real estate site's relatively modest estimate of her home's value has created a "roadblock" to selling at what she thinks it's worth.” This homeowner’s main issue is that the Zestimate for her home is lower than the amount she has listed the home for and it’s causing prospective buyers to balk.  Click below to go directly to the article.

The Accuracy of Zillow's Zestimate in Chicago

You can read the article for more info about the suit, but I wanted to point out one of the most important facts pointed out in the article that was taken directly from a page on Zillow. It has a chart illustrating its accuracy, or lack thereof.  In Chicago, it's Zestimate is within 5% of the sale price 47.4% of the time (or in other words, it is off by over 5% more than half of the time).

Click the image above to go to the page that further explains their Zestimates

The median sale price in the city of Chicago in the last 12 months is $277,000.  Let's say a homeowner wants to sell their home without a real estate agent in an effort to avoid paying commissions. They look up their home on Zillow and decide on a list price based on Zillow's Zestimate.  If Zillow's estimate is off by 5% (or greater), that would result in a $13,850 difference!  And that's giving Zillow the benefit of the doubt by only applying 5%. On my prior study, there was an average difference of over 20%.  

Key Takeaway

Homeowners - Please don't rely on Zillow to provide you with an accurate value of your home. Call a local real estate agent, or even better yet, an appraiser to help you determine an accurate value for your home. This will allow you to sell it in an appropriate amount of time at the highest possible price without leaving thousands of dollars on the table.

Bonus Takeaway  - It's interesting that its off by 5% or greater over half the time. Why not just hire a real estate agent and pay the 5-6% commisions? In addition to a more accurate list price, they can provide marketing, staging, profession pictures, advice, etc that can also result on you selling your home for more money that you would on your own.​

Why is an appraisal necessary?

Most appraisals are completed as part of the mortgage lending process, with the lender being the entity to request the appraisal. If you think of it this way, a bank has most of the money on the line. Before lending it to a borrower, they want to know whether that the property is worth the amount of money being borrowed to purchase it. The banks want to be sure that if for some reason the borrower stops making payments on the mortgage and stop paying off the loan, the bank can repossess the house and sell it in order to recoup the money lent in the first place. If an appraisal comes back to lender for far under the contract price, that would raise some concerns that the borrower is attempting to borrow more than the property is actually worth. Along with checking a borrower's credit score, debt-to-income ratio, etc., the appraisal helps the lender assess risk. This is known as the loan-to-value ratio. If a borrower is fronting 50% of the cost of the home for example, that means less risk for the bank. But if the borrower has a very small down payment and is borrowing 90% to 100% of the cost of the property then that is much more risky for the bank.

Other common reasons for an appraisal:

    • Estate Appraisal (Also known as a “Date of Death Appraisal”): When an estate transfers ownership because of a death or inheritance, in most cases a real estate appraisal is needed for tax purposes and often to determine a listing price for the home. (click here to read more)
    • Divorce Appraisal: For many couples, the marital residence is the largest asset obtained during the marriage and an accurate appraisal is extremely important (click here to read more)
    • Financial and Estate Planning: Financial and Estate Planners are often relied upon by their clients to provide sound, well-informed advice and the value of the real estate assets are often needed to develop the best and most effective strategies for their clients (click here to read more)
    • PMI Removal: If you purchased your home with conventional financing and put less than 20% down, it’s likely you’re paying PMI. If your property value has appreciated, providing your lender with an appraisal can help remove this additional cost (click to read more).
    • Tax Assessment Appeals: Most real estate and property taxes are based upon the value of the property. When the taxing agency values your property at a higher rate than the actual value, you are paying too much in taxes (click here to read more).
    • Pre-listing, Pre-Purchase, FSBO’s: When trying to establish a fair list price is often difficult to sift through all of the market data to determine a true value for your home. Itt’s common for homeowners and realtors to rely on appraisers for assistance when establishing a list price for the sale of their home (click here to read more).

A few words from our clients

Paul Rowe is a consummate professional. In appraisal work there are hard facts and there is nuance. Paul does not ignore factors that are outside of the facts that could influence the value of a piece of property - such as litigation regarding the property, conditions of the immediate neighborhood that might not be affecting other similar properties a few blocks away. Paul digs in, does his due diligence and is able to come up with a number that not only can be relied upon but can stand up in court (and has). Absolutely one the top appraisers in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Erica Minchella
Attorney

Use Rowe Appraisal if you are looking for a knowledgeable and helpful company.

Jamie Bernhardt
Real Estate Agent

Call us today for a free consultation.

What is an appraisal?

I recently came across this great graphic by Title Source that goes through the home appraisal process and the appraisal basics. It briefly discusses what an appraisal is, why it is necessary, what appraisals are based on, what homebuyers need to know, appraisal myths and truths, etc. In the coming months, I will be unpacking each of these topics and going into more detail about each of the items shown in the “flowchart” to “pull back the curtain” in an effort to educate the consumer on the appraisal process and what they need to be aware of.

"An unbiased, professional opinion of value"

In the graphic they define the word "appraisal" as: "An unbiased professional opinion of value." For this first post in the series, let’s take a closer look at what those first three words really mean.

The word "unbiased" is pretty straightforward but what does it mean in relation to being a real estate appraiser? Essentially, it means that an appraiser is charged with being an independent party that cannot advocate for either side of the transaction. Appraisers should never advocate for a client's objective. Often a homeowner is hoping for a certain outcome. For example, if they are applying for a mortgage refinance or Home Equity Loan, they are wanting a higher appraised value. But if they are appealing their property taxes or settling an estate and planning on buying out the others in the estate, they most likely want a lower value. Another good example of this is when the intended use is for a divorce appraisal and we are asked to determine market value for a property that is owned by two people going through a divorce. Just because one spouse hires an appraiser doesn't mean that the appraiser is an advocate for their client. No, an appraiser's role is to provide an unbiased, well-supported opinion of value. This one word alone is an important one that separates us as appraisers from every other person involved in the transaction

The word "professional" could have easily been omitted from their definition of appraisal but it's telling that it was included. One reason is that all appraisers must be licensed and adhere to a professional set of Standards and Ethics as detailed by USPAP. We must take extensive amounts of appraisal coursework and also acquire a significant number of hours working on appraisal reports before becoming a licensed and certified appraiser. In order to maintain our license, we must also take a minimum number of hours of continuing education every 2 years. All of this means that appraisers are continually engaging with other appraisers and keeping abreast of the latest trends and changes in the appraisal profession. These experience and education requirements in combination with USPAP holding appraisers to a uniform standards and ethics, gives appraisers the tools and expertise in valuation methods and best practices. It is for these reasons that I believe the word “professional” is an important one.

Finally, we get to the word "opinion". While there is a lot of science involved and standard accepted methodology, there is also an art to appraising and the results are often subjective. Two appraiser can be hired to appraise the same property and may come to different value conclusions. Now, if they are both good appraisers with a strong knowledge of the market area and have well-researched and supported opinions of value, then the two opinions of value should be fairly close (typically within 5%). Real estate markets are imperfect due to many factors including different buyer/seller motivations and we cannot always account for some of these unknowns. However, we are trained to analyze all market data including interviewing market participants and use this information to provide an opinion of value that is indicative of the most probable sales price of a property.

So to summarize, you can reach out to any number of people to get an opinion of what your home might be worth. Each person is going to have an opinion based on, at the very least, their own experience and possibly their own best interest. But an appraiser follows a standardized set of best practices, analysis, and methodology that leads to a professional opinion of value that is above-all unbiased and well supported.

THE HOME APPRAISAL PROCESS - What you need to know as the buyer

To see the full graphic to see other topics I will be covering click the button below.  For Real Estate Agents, this may be a useful tool to provide your buyers/sellers with as a brief overview of the process.

Real Estate and Price Per Square Foot

Realtor Tip: Multiple Offers? Tell the Appraiser!

This blog post goes out to all the Realtors who have had a deal fall through because the appraised value was below the contract price.  Some of you may even had multiple offers with most of them were even above the appraised value.  If this has happened to you, first and foremost: I feel your pain!  You are thinking to yourself, “If I have 4 different buyers willing to pay $400,000, how could the appraiser say that it is only worth $390,000?”   Well, there is nothing wrong with that logic.  But keep in mind that as appraisers we are tasked with giving our “opinion of value” and that value MUST be supported by facts and market data.  We can’t just say that we THINK it is worth $400,000.  We have to prove our case supported by facts and market data (aka Comparable sales, listings, and market trends).

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Aren’t four separate signed contracts considered facts and/or market data?”.  Absolutely they are! It is a fact that 4 different buyers are willing to pay $X and this is certainly considered to be data from the market.  A good appraiser will take those facts into consideration in his/her analysis.


Why should an appraiser want to know this information?

How can you prevent this from happening again?  Tell the appraiser.  Bring him copies of the offers to the inspection.  Email him the offers. Why?  Here are couple of main reasons. 

  1. Is the contract price above list price? Multiple offers could help explain this. We are required to analyze the sales contract and listing history for the subject property. In most cases our clients require a comment/explanation when a contract price is higher than the most recent list price. Knowing that there are multiple offers indicates a strong demand for the property at that specific price point. If a home was only listed on the MLS for 5 days and has multiple offers, it most likely indicates that the list price is at or below market value. Or it could signal that inventory levels are low and buyers have very few alternatives. Or maybe both.
  2. Multiple Offers will alert a good appraiser to dig deeper.  If I am analyzing comparable sales and they are indicating a value below the contract price, maybe I need to call the agents on the listings and see if I am missing something (perhaps one or more of the comparables were distressed or estate or relocation sales and sold below market value). Maybe I need to look deeper at the current market conditions. Are inventory levels low? (Typically below 3 months would raise a red flag.) Maybe I need to look further into the median sales prices and see if the trend is showing significant price appreciation. In an increasing market, the appraiser should adjust comparables that sold several months ago upwards to bring that sale price to today’s market conditions. However, this needs to be supported by market data. (Infosparks can be a great tool for this if used correctly. Stay tuned for an upcoming post/video showing how it works and how you can use it in your practice.)

It's not a magic bullet, but it could make the all the difference.

I also want to be clear that I’m not telling you that if you have multiple offers you are guaranteed the appraisal will support your contract price.  However, this information can be a significant piece of the appraisal puzzle.  Because an appraiser must provide support for their value opinions, it’s critical that they seek out and receive as much information as possible.  That’s where you, as real estate agents, come in.  In my practice, I make it a point to ask if there were multiple offers.  But even if the appraiser who is appraising your listing doesn’t ask, I highly recommend you make them aware that there have been multiple offers.  To take it one step further, I strongly suggest you provide the copies of the contracts so the appraiser can keep them in their Work File as further support for the value conclusion.  Anyone can say they had multiple offers but we can put much more weight on those offers when we know for certain they exist.  

Remember, appraisers can’t just go out on a limb and appraise a property at the highest possible price.  Our definition of market value tells us we must appraise it at the most probable price (here is a previous post which goes into more detail - Market Value: Probable vs. Possible). When we are finished adjusting our comparable sales, we typically end up with a range of values.  The dispersion of that range can vary (typically less than 10%), but let’s just say for this example we started with a contract price of $400,000.  The range of adjusted comparable sales prices is $380,000 - $405,000.  If the appraiser was handed four signed contracts with contract prices of $390,000, $395,000, $400,000, and $405,000, it may give them that extra support they need to reconcile their final opinion of value at the upper end of the range.  After all, we are supposed to be determining the most probable price for which a property will sell.  To take it even one step further, if the appraiser analyzes the market and determines that there is a shortage of inventory and prices are increasing, they may be even more inclined to be more aggressive with their opinion of value.

​But without actual support and evidence, the appraiser can’t go out on a limb alone. Information about multiple offers may not make a huge difference in the appraised value, but it could make enough of a difference to get your deal closed!  Providing information about multiple offers to the appraiser is not just a service to him or her but also a service to your client!  For more information see my post on Tips for Real Estate Agents to Avoid a Bad Appraisal.


APPRAISER / REALTOR FACEBOOK GROUP

I have created a Facebook group for local Realtors who have appraisal questions.  I will be sharing some great information that will help you understand things from an appraisers perspective and some tips to help you in your business.  You are encouraged to jump in and ask any questions you have. Just click below and then click the "Join Group" button.

Appraiser vs. Home Inspector – What’s the Diff?

Often before a property is purchased using a loan from a mortgage company, it must be appraised and inspected. Many homeowners confuse the appraisal inspection and the home inspection and ask me what the difference is. Here are some of the main ways that appraisals and home inspections are different and also overlap.

Different End Goals: Value vs. Condition

The main thing to know is a real estate appraiser’s focus is on determining the value of the home and those factors that will influence that value. A Home Inspector’s main objective is determining the condition. The Home Inspector is tasked with determining the condition of the property in terms of structural soundness and quality/safety of electrical and plumbing systems. The Home Inspector has an obligation to be accurate in their assessment of a home’s condition but they also act as advocates for the buyer. Their job is to point out any deficiencies with the house such as outdated/unsafe wiring or obvious problems with the foundation so that their client (the buyer) can make an informed decision about whether to purchase the house, negotiate a lower contract price, or just walk away all together. See the graphic below for many of the items a home inspector will be looking at (Source: www.gqre.com).

While an appraiser’s inspection of the property may take into consideration many of the things a Home Inspector looks at, his/her ultimate goal is to provide an opinion of value. The appraiser’s job is to provide their client (the lender) an accurate, well-supported, unbiased opinion of value. This usually includes commentary on the condition of the property since that is tied to value. For example, a 1960’s ranch home in original condition will most likely have a lower value than a 1960’s ranch home in the same neighborhood that has an updated kitchen and bathrooms. The appraiser’s job is to give the bank their opinion of market value (I go into this in more detail on a prior post - Market Value: Probable vs. Possible) which helps them determine if the mortgage be a good, sound investment for the bank.

Appraisal Inspection vs. Home Inspection

So how will you tell the Appraiser and the Home Inspector apart when they come to your home? Probably they’ll introduce themselves as either the Appraiser or the Home Inspector. Just kidding!

The appraiser’s site visit will usually take around 30 minutes and they will measure your house and look at all of the rooms including the basement. They will be noting the quality and condition of the finishes, the layout, bed and bath count, etc. They will take pictures of each room to include in the appraisal report. In some cases, like for an FHA loan, the appraiser may inspect crawl spaces and attics or test the basic appliances. But he’s probably not going to crawl under the house to inspect the foundation or get on your roof and walk around looking for leaks.

Appraisers try to look at the property through the eyes of the most probable buyer for that particular property – not only which features and attributes they find desirable, but also to what extent would the typical buyers be “inspecting” the home? A more simplified way to look at it is to ask yourself: “If I were looking to purchase this house, what are the things I would look at and what things would I hire someone with professional experience to check?” You may open a cabinet or two, look at the ceilings for leaks, take a look at the mechanicals to see if they are newer or may need replaced soon. But in my experience, very few buyers will be going into crawl spaces and bringing their ladders to get on the roof. They are mainly interested in the functionality of the house such as how many bedroom and bathrooms, whether they like the layout of the floorplan, etc.  Here is a great video from a Portland appraiser, Gary Kristensen, that shows you what you can expect when an appraiser visits.

A Home Inspector will really get into the bones of the home. They will get on the roof, get into the crawl space, and analyze the structural integrity. A good Home Inspector will be able to find possible issues that the Appraiser may not such as termites, faulty electrical wiring, plumbing that is not up to code, structural issues, leaky roof, mold, etc. Now that I’ve scared you with all the things that could be wrong with a house you’re looking to purchase (!), I highly recommend that if you are buying a home you hire a licensed Home Inspector to complete a full home inspection because they will be able to tell you things about the home that the typical appraiser is not going to. If you don’t know a good home inspector in Chicagoland, we recommend Inspectrum. Click here for their website and contact info.


If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to call us at (847) 863-5776. We specialize in appraisals for estates, divorce, pre-listings, bankruptcy, etc.

Real Estate Agent Property Questionnaire

I love when I have the opportunity to meet the listing agent at the property, but as you know, that’s not always possible. This fillable/interactive form allows you to make sure the appraiser has all of the information they need to complete a thorough appraisal of your listing. I’ve broken this form up into two sections with the first covering the recent updates to the property and the second related more to the market area and ways in which your listing shines. Each section/question is designed to help you communicate pertinent information to the appraiser that will be helpful is the appraiser determining the most accurate opinion of value.


Section 1 (Improvement/Updates)

By completing this section, you can make sure the appraiser knows about updates and improvements made to the property as well as their approximate cost. Obtaining the approximate cost of the improvements can be helpful in supporting a significant increase in value if the home had recently sold prior to these updates. While cost does not always equal value, knowing the cost of improvements assists the appraiser when analyzing the contributory value of each improvement. These updates are broken up into 5 year increments as this is how appraisers are now required to report the updates to the kitchen and baths in the appraisal report.

Section 2 (Market Information)

Here is your opportunity to provide the sales/listings you used to determine the list price -- essentially potential comps for the appraiser to consider. You can also address in the 2nd question major selling points. A good appraiser should already know certain benefits of a property’s location but you, as Realtors, often have more detailed or nuanced information about what prospective buyers are looking for. Think of what is most discussed or brought up by potential buyers when you are showing the house. Was it the large master bedroom suite, walking distance to the Metra or Blue line, proximity to downtown’s shops and restaurants, the best school district in the area? All of this is great information for an appraiser to have.

Multiple Offers and Additional Info

More specific questions, such as the one about multiple offers, may ultimately help the appraiser support an opinion of value that takes into account current market demand that may not be reflected yet in recent sales prices (possibly an indicator that values are increasing). Lastly, there is an area for anything else you want the appraiser to know.


Property Questionnaire

for Real Estate Agents


Questionnaire for Homeowners

We also do a ton of “non-lender” work, so I also created a modified version of this form to give to homeowners who call me directly for appraisals for divorce, pre-listings, estates, etc. Click below for a copy of this modified version to help you ascertain the recent improvements when putting the MLS listing together and pricing the property.

Chicago Housing Styles

 

Chicago style bungalowReal estate agents and appraisers alike often struggle to define the architectural style for unusual or unique properties. Have you ever gotten a new listing, took one look and started scratching your head and asking yourself how you are going to describe this to prospective clients?

Even more basic properties can present a conundrum when they nod to more than one typical style. The web offers some great resources to both educate yourself on architectural styles and help make a decision once you start completing the listing form on the MLS. The National Association of Realtor’s website offers a good starting point (http://realtormag.realtor.org/home-and-design/guide-residential-styles).    This article covers common styles across the country but since many architectural designs end up including a number of different styles, it’s good to know your Craftsman from your Colonial. Sometimes it’s just a little bit of detail that turns a standard Cape Cod into a Tudor.

Chicago housing styles via Big Shoulders Realty

Chicago housing styles via Big Shoulders Realty

Fortunately, Chicago definitely has some set, easily identifiable housing types.  Big Shoulders Realty, a boutique brokerage firm in Chicago, has an excellent page on their website that provides brief histories and descriptions of housing styles common to Chicago that can be helpful when describing a property on MLS (click on the image above to go to the page).  Then click on the housing style and you are taken to a page that also shows you actual houses in Chicago that are of that style.  It really is the best resource online I have found for the Chicago market (it should be called “Chicago Housing Styles for Dummies”).

But what do you do when you have a more recently constructed property? How do you avoid using the catch-alls “Traditional” and “Contemporary”?  Really, I’m asking.  Feel free to comment below!  General consensus has it that “contemporary” means “of this time” or moment. Something funky, modern-looking or new could fall under that category. For a property where “traditional” seems like the only option, maybe pull out the most prominent feature, like a turret or full front porch or examine the roof line for any elements that point in one stylistic direction or the other.

Rowe Appraisal Group specializes in “non-lender” appraisals and we complete pre-listings appraisals for real estate agents and homeowners all the time.  Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you ever have any questions.  You can reach us at (847) 863-5776 or email us at roweappraisalgroup@gmail.com.

Property Questionnaire for Real Estate Agents

A couple of days ago I was sitting down to start writing a blog post on how to streamline the initial appraisal process, specifically gathering information on the subject property prior to doing the inspection. Over the weekend I listened to an episode of the podcast “Voice of Appraisal” where Phil Crawford mentioned an improvement worksheet that the Ohio Coalition of Appraisal Professionals (OCAP) has distributed to local area realtors. I recently contacted him and Steve Papin, the president of OCAP, who was kind enough to send me a copy. Here is the PDF (Property Questionnaire), or you can email me and I can send you the Word Doc that is formatted properly).

The main purpose of the questionnaire is to gather information that might otherwise be difficult to obtain. As you can see, the form provides the listing agent an opportunity to list all recent updates and any other details they would want an appraiser to know. Instead of springing all these questions on the agent at the time of the  inspection, by emailing a copy in advance they can have the time to do any necessary research and talk to their clients about the property before you even go there. And since it’s fairly often that a property is on a lock-box, you may not even meet the Realtor. Finally, at the end of the day you’ll have a document that can easily be saved to your work file.

In doing more research on these types of questionnaires, I saw that Ryan Lundquist of Sacramento Appraisal Blog, has also shared a “cheat sheet” that you can download here. This morning I was all set to wrap up my blog post by outlining even more benefits to these forms when I saw that Tom Horn, appraiser and author of the Birmingham Appraisal Blog, posted his own version of the “Property Questionnaire” here. So, clearly something is in the air folks! Tom’s blog post, as always, is top notch and has lots of good tips and suggestions for agents and homeowners alike.

I will most likely be creating my own form based on these three examples to include a section for any other additional features that the agent feels adds value to the property, or specific neighborhood info that the agent thinks is important. I suggest you do the same. Choose your own adventure or tailor one of these questionnaires to fit the Real Estate Agents in your own market! Once I’ve gotten mine whipped into shape, I’ll post it to my blog.

Land Value: Surplus vs. Excess

I recently came across this interesting animated GIF from an article from RealtorMag regarding land values over the last 40 years.  It followed the overall housing market by peaking in 2006 and bottoming in 2011.  When thinking about land value it is important to understand a fundamental concept of surplus land vs. excess land.  Jonathan Montgomery also wrote an excellent post with some additional information on this topic you can read here.


EXCESS LAND is the portion of the lot that is not necessary to meet the existing zoning requirements AND could possibly be sub-divided and sold off as a separate parcel.  
SURPLUS LAND is not large enough to be separated from the existing parcel and therefore, does not have as much value as excess land.


The trick I was taught to remember this is excess land is excellent.  Let's look at the following two slides below from a recent class I took from the Hagar Institute (which I highly recommend for all appraisers).

Source: How to Support and Prove Your Adjustments by Richard Hagar 

Source: How to Support and Prove Your Adjustments by Richard Hagar 

In this example, a 3000 sq. ft. lot is valued at only $3 per sq. ft. as it is considered unbuildable and has minimal utility.  Once you get to 5000 sq. ft. the value per sq. ft. increases to $40 per sq. ft. Therefore, a 3000 sq. ft. lot would have a market value of around $9000, while a 5000 sq. ft. lot would have a market value of $200,000.  

Remember that when appraisers are analyzing land values, we are NOT making adjustments on the total size, but instead the incremental change in size.  This same theory can be applied to many other features of real estate as well (GLA, first bed or bath, first 50' of water frontage, etc.)  If you have any questions please feel free to call me at (847) 863-5776 or leave your question or comment below.