The problem with non-permitted additions in real estate

Non-permitted additions can cause huge problems. Last week I wrote about how I valued a garage conversion without permits, and I wanted to follow up with some expanded thoughts. As I mentioned, in this situation I gave value to a conversion because I was able to show the market was willing to pay for it. Yet it’s not always that easy, so let’s dig deeper. By the way, props to Cynthia, Gary, and Bryan for stellar blog comments that prodded me to follow-up. Any thoughts?

54025005 - demolishing the old kitchen - exposing the studs, existing plumbing and electrical work

Issues when dealing with a lack of permits:

1) Lenders & Appraisers: Here’s the bottom line. Some lenders don’t want to lend on properties with non-permitted additions. In short, a non-permitted area might have legitimate value in the market, but some lenders will tell appraisers NOT to give the space any value. At the same time other lenders are okay with value being given, but they want appraisers to show a few comps with similar non-permitted areas to prove the market is willing to pay for the space (that’s tricky to find).

2) Illegal: Does the addition conform with what zoning allows? This is a key question. For instance, if zoning only allows one unit and the seller has a non-permitted second unit that hands-down would never be allowed, it’s an enormous liability for an appraiser to be giving value to something like that. Likewise, imagine if an addition was built within the setbacks on a site, which would make it illegal and maybe even a safety issue.

3) Building Department Reaction: Is it likely the non-permitted area can become permitted? What is it going to cost? This is where it’s worth giving the building department a call. I don’t recommend mentioning a specific address at first so you don’t raise red flags, but call and maybe ask about a hypothetical situation to see what the cost and feasibility might be for getting permits. Remember, not all markets are the same either. For instance, since 1976 the City of Davis has had a program where building inspectors visit all properties before they close escrow to ensure there are no code violations. In short, you can’t get away with non-permitted additions in Davis if you plan to sell (but you can elsewhere).

4) The Struggle of Different Opinions: A friend gave me a call to talk through a situation with a garage that was converted into a second unit without permits. The appraiser gave little weight to the addition because of zoning issues, but the seller thought it should have carried more weight. There was a solid back-up offer on the table, but regardless of whether this addition was worth more or not, the thing I told my friend was there was no guarantee a future appraiser or lender was going to see the situation any differently. Owners in scenarios like this tend to say, “The lack of permits wasn’t a problem when we first bought the house”, but guidelines and what appraisers report might have changed over time. Moreover, not every appraiser or lender is going to see things the same way.

Advice about non-permitted areas:

1) Minimal value: Expect there is generally going to be less value for something not permitted than something fully permitted (thanks Captain Obvious).

2) Bigger is Bigger: Buyers seem to ignore smaller-ticket items that weren’t permitted, but the bigger something is, the more likely it is going to be a bigger deal that it wasn’t permitted. For example, there is a huge difference between a non-permitted covered patio and a 400 sq ft addition that was not permitted.

3) Glorified Storage: Keep in mind an appraiser might be instructed by a lender to count a non-permitted area as storage instead of living space. So that second story attic conversion might be really sweet, but an appraiser might end up treating it like storage instead of extra square footage.

4) The Easy Answer: Getting permits can help avoid future loan problems. Be sure to keep a copy of the permit too so any appraiser or buyer can see everything has been signed off.

NOTE ON GIVING VALUE TO SOLAR: This is off-topic, but there was a recent class on solar and it was apparently mentioned I do not give value to solar systems. That’s not accurate. However, I have said a LEASED solar system does not get value because it’s personal property. Just wanted to clarify. You can read this post and another for some thoughts on solar.


Questions: How have you seen a lack of permits impact a transaction or appraisal? Would you buy a home if it had an addition that was not permitted? Did I miss something? I’d love to hear your take.

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Eating tacos and 10 housing market truths

I eat tacos with investors. That’s right. A few times a year a group of real estate friends get together to talk shop at the best taco joint in town. It’s informal and fun because we’re friends, but it’s also valuable to get a sense for what everyone is seeing out there in the trenches. Anyway, despite not having tacos in front of me at the moment, I wanted to share some of the things that have seemed to come up lately in housing market conversations. Anything to add?

33102060 - top 10 - businessman with chalkboard

10 truths about the housing market

1) One high or low sale doesn’t make or break a market.

2) Just because inventory is low doesn’t mean buyers will pay any price.

3) The market isn’t doing the same thing in every neighborhood or price range.

4) There is no such thing as a national housing market. The “national” market is actually made up of thousands of local markets (Jonathan Miller).

5) Appraisers only measure the market. They don’t make values go up or down.

6) There is no recipe or formula for the way a housing “bubble” has to pop. In other words, for all the conversation about a current “bubble”, if the market did “pop” it wouldn’t necessarily have to look the same way it did 10 years ago.

7) Real estate advice has a shelf life, which means it might not be good for every market (or every price range or location).

8) Markets aren’t so perfect that we can say a property is only worth one certain amount like $336,456. It’s best to recognize there is a reasonable range for what the market might be willing to pay (say $330,000 to $340,000). Is there any support for the appraised value to come in at or near the list price or contract price? Does this price fall within the range of what is reasonable?

9) “Negative market trends are not the end of the world. They represent opportunities for some” (from Jonathan Miller).

10) Thinking positively or talking positively about the market doesn’t drive the market. In other words, “you can’t overpower the market with the power of positive thinking. The market doesn’t care what you or your client thinks” Jonathan Miller.

You may notice I referenced New York Appraiser Jonathan Miller a few times above. I realize that makes me look like a fanboy, but that’s okay because he’s an influential voice in my life and I appreciate his weekly notes every Friday. Last week Jonathan knocked it out of the park in his section entitled “McMansions, McEgos, McPrices and McHonor” (that’s where I picked up point #9 and #10).

how-to-think-like-an-appraiser-class-by-ryan-lundquist-150x150Class I’m teaching on Thursday: On September 29 from 9am-12pm I’m doing my favorite class at SAR called HOW TO THINK LIKE AN APPRAISER. We’re going to have a blast talking through seeing properties like an appraiser does. We’ll look at comp selection and talk through so many issues. My goal is to help you walk away full of actionable ideas. Register here.

Questions: What types of conversations are coming up in your circles right now? What is #11? I’d love to hear your take.

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Four things to remember about the value of a larger lot

The lot is huge, so it must be worth more, right? But how much is it really worth? Let’s look at four quick points to consider when it comes to lot size. Don’t miss the two images at the bottom of the post too. I’d love to hear your take in the comments.

larger lot size in real estate - sacramento appraisal blog - image purchased from 123rf and used with permission

Four things to remember about the value of a larger lot:

  1. It’s about what the market will pay: The best way to know what a larger lot size is worth is to start comparing similar homes with and without larger lots. What is the price difference? If we can line up a few examples, we’ll probably begin to see a reasonable range of value emerge. Keep in mind there might not be any recent larger lot sales, but you can easily look at the past few years of neighborhood sales as well as sales in a competitive market. Value could be exponentially higher for the larger size, but then again it might be less than we’d think. At the end of the day we have to look to the market for the answer though since it all comes down to what buyers are actually willing to pay for the difference in size.
  2. Usefulness: When dealing with a larger lot we have to consider the usefulness of the extra space. What if the larger lot size was located in the front yard? Could there be a difference in value between a huge backyard and a large front yard? What if the lot had a funky shape that made most if it unusable? What if the larger lot was located right next to the highway compared to the interior of the neighborhood? What if there was an easement running through the lot that essentially cut the usable space in half? From a value standpoint we have to consider the effective usable lot size and make sure we are choosing comps with similar utility.
  3. New construction: Remember, builders tend to charge more for a “lot size premium” or “lot elevation premium” when a house initially sells, but this premium may or may not exist in the resale market years down the road. The owner might expect to sell for more, but what are homes with similar features actually selling for in the resale market? That’s what our focus needs to be.
  4. The temptation to give an adjustment: It’s tempting to give a lot size value adjustment any time we see a difference in size. Thus when we see a lot that is 6534 sq ft and a lot that is 8000 sq ft, we automatically apply an adjustment. Or if we see something that is 4356 sq ft and a lot that is 6500 sq ft, we’re tempted to use a price figure we think makes sense. But we have to ask ourselves, would buyers really make the adjustment? (adjustments are supposed to be based on the behavior of the market (buyers)). It’s easy to be trigger-happy about giving adjustments like this, but we have to remember there is no such thing as an adjustment that is going to work for every single neighborhood, price range, or market. In short, if the adjustment is incredibly minor, maybe it’s better to just not give it in the first place.

I hope this was helpful. Now two quick images.

lot utility - sacramento appraisal blog

Example of Finding an Adjustment: Assume these two model match sales have a similar location, upgrades, and condition. Now how much is the extra lot size worth based on actual sales? Remember, it’s ideal to find a few examples instead of just one so our results are more meaningful.

lot size example - by sacramento appraisal blog

Questions: Anything else to add? What is #5? Did I miss something? I’d love to hear your take.

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3 ways price per sq ft is valuable in real estate (even for appraisers)

My name is Ryan and I use price per sq ft in real estate. There it is. My confession. Are you surprised? I know you’ve heard me talk about how price per sq ft is one of the most abused metrics out there. I still believe that. Yet there are several ways price per sq ft is actually valuable and useful for real estate professionals (even appraisers). So let’s kick around some ideas together below. I’d love to hear your take in the comments. Any thoughts?

price per sq ft value in real estate - image purchased and used with permission by sacramento appraisal blog

1) Price Per Sq Ft Helps Us See the Entire Market: What have buyers been willing to pay in a neighborhood? It’s valuable to see the price per sq ft spectrum to help answer this question. What is the high, the low, and the average? I ran a CMA of sales over the past 90 days in the Mather neighborhood in Sacramento County (a tract subdivision), and the price per sq ft range is $112 to $206.

Mather all sales past 90 days - sacramento appraisal blog

2) Price Per Sq Ft Helps Us See The Competitive Market: Imagine we’re valuing a home that is 1569 sq ft. The question becomes, where does the 1569 model fall on the price per sq ft spectrum that we see above? After running a CMA for model match sales, the price per sq ft range is $184 to $193. That’s a much more narrow range compared to the overall neighborhood, right? Ideally it would be nice to have many more sales, but that doesn’t always happen as we know. This is why sometimes it might be best to look at more than just 90 days of sales and obviously expand the square footage range to maybe 1400 to 1800 or so. Whatever you do, just make sure you have enough data to produce meaningful results.

1569 model in mather - price per sq ft - sacramento appraisal blog

3) Price Per Sq Ft Helps us Talk to Clients About the Market: Some clients are so stuck on price per sq ft that they struggle to think about real estate in any other terms. Here’s how it usually goes. A home owner sees a figure of $206 from a different sale in the neighborhood, fixates on that number, and then expects a value for his own property based on that number (even though no similar sales have commanded a price per sq ft close to $206). After talking through Points 1 & 2, hopefully the client can understand that hijacking a random price per sq ft from the neighborhood isn’t a good valuation methodology. Lastly, it’s critical to actually completely set aside price per sq ft and ask two questions: What have similar properties actually sold for? (sales price) & What are similar listings actually getting into contract for?

price per sq ft in real estate - image purchased and used with permission by sacramento appraisal blog


  1. Real Estate Agents: Be sure to study the price per sq ft spectrum for the entire neighborhood AND competitive properties in the neighborhood. But make sure you spend a good amount of time finding similar sales and listings. Sometimes agents say to appraisers, “I used a price per sq ft of $215 to price the property”. Okay, but where did you get $215 from? Why not $208, $214, or $225? Remember, appraisers like myself can find value in using price per sq ft to see the context of the market, but at the end of the day we are fishing for comparable sales to tell us what the market has been willing to pay for something similar. So when you communicate with appraisers, I recommend talking about actual sales you used to price the property rather than price per sq ft figures. This helps you speak the language appraisers use, and your initial research with price per sq ft vs. actual sales might even help convince sellers to not get hung up on a list price that is far too high (based on a hijacked price per sq ft).
  2. Appraisers: Sometimes appraisers mock price per sq ft and treat it like a meaningless metric, but there is actually some real value in using it. Not only can we get a more detailed sense of the market, but we can also communicate well with clients. Consider paying close attention to competitive price per sq ft figures (I know, this may not work in rural markets). If you are coming in lower or higher than the competitive range in the neighborhood, just be sure you know why and can explain why. Also, consider using price per sq ft figures in your final reconciliation. For instance, along with statements about comps, I regularly find myself saying things like: “The final value is also supported by trend graphs as well as competitive price per sq ft figures in the neighborhood.”

I hope this was helpful.

reaa-north-bayClass I’m Teaching Next Week: By the way, I’m teaching a class next week in the North Bay to a group of appraisers. It’s called How to Tell the Story of Value in Appraisal Reports (good for 2 hours CE). Come on by if it’s relevant.

Questions: How do you use price per sq ft in real estate? Anything else you’d add to the points above? Did I miss something? I’d love to hear your take.

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