5 things to remember about the value of landscaping

How much value does landscaping really add? Nothing. A minor amount. A huge total. I’ve heard it all when it comes to what people think landscaping is worth. Today let’s kick around some ideas from an appraisal standpoint. Anything to add?

landscaping in appraisals - sacramento appraisal blog

5 things to remember about the value of landscaping

1) The myth of no value: I’ve heard the sentiment from some real estate professionals that landscaping does not count toward the value. My take? Landscaping is often very important to buyers – especially when it is extensive or highly expected in certain neighborhoods.

2) Front vs back: My sense is front yard landscaping does not sway buyers like the backyard does. I’m not saying it’s not important or curb appeal doesn’t matter (it does). I’m only saying the rear yard tends to make a much more significant impact on value since people spend more time there.

3) One size doesn’t fit all: The value of landscaping will vary significantly depending on the price range and neighborhood. For instance, a few years back during the height of home flipping activity, it was common to see flippers at the lower end of the market do very basic cosmetic landscaping in the front yard while doing almost nothing with the backyard (seriously, rear yards were at times just dirt or bordering on unkempt). In contrast, higher priced homes were getting full-service attention in both the front and backyard. Why? Because the market had different expectations by price range and the investors’ sense was spending the money was worth it in some neighborhoods and not others.

4) On par after huge money spent: Sometimes owners will spend good money to redo an unkempt yard only to expect a huge price premium. The problem is post-landscaping the owner is now basically on par with other homes in the neighborhood rather than in a position to command a premium. This is not easy to swallow, but it’s important to recognize in order to avoid overpricing. 

5) Dollar for dollar: While we like to get a “dollar for dollar” return on our improvement projects (at the least), that’s not always possible in real estate. So when an owner says, “I spent $125,000 in my backyard” and otherwise similar homes are selling for $700,000, can we really expect this property to be worth $825,000? That’s probably not realistic, right? Most of all though, let’s find comps with incredible landscaping and let those properties tell the story of value. That way we are letting actual market data speak to us to set the tone for what buyers have been willing to pay for similar landscaping. Isn’t that better than shooting from the hip about what landscaping may or may not be worth?

Case-in-point for an incredible backyard: While appraising in the Natomas area of Sacramento I came across a house with an incredible backyard. I ended up NOT using it as a “comp” because this property sold about 10% higher than others because of the built-in pool, custom covered patio, built-in BBQ, outdoor fireplace, and everything else in the yard. I’m not calling all of these things landscaping of course, but at the same time let’s be realistic to think buyers may lump some of these items in the same category. Anyway, at times it’s tempting to give a token $10,000 upward value adjustment when we see a nice rear yard because that’s what a mentor taught us to do, but sometimes the market is willing to pay more like 10%. In this case otherwise similar homes seemed to come in around $450,000 and the subject sold for $495,000 (there were 7 offers). There was one other sale at $485,000 and it also had a sweet backyard. As you can see on the graph, the incredible backyard seemed to really matter.

incredible landscaping - sacramento appraisal blog

Here is what the rear yard looked like. I could live with that. You?

house with amazing rear yard - sacramento appraiser

Remember, let’s find a few examples of extensive rear landscaping (or an amazing backyard) if possible so we don’t base our perception of value on only one sale. After all, what is that one sale sold too high or too low?

The Washington Post: Two weeks ago I wrote a post about the ugly side of appraisal fees, and as a result Ken Harney of The Washington Post interviewed a handful of appraisers (including me) for a piece that went live today. Ken is a nationally syndicated columnist, so the conversation that took place here is going to be moving to a much bigger level. Thank you everyone. Here is Ken’s article.

Questions: What stands out to you most about what I mentioned above? What is #6? Did I miss something?

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The ugly truth about appraisal fees

I had a bad experience with an AMC recently and I want to share it. This is not because I’m wanting to rant or be negative, but only to highlight some of the ugliness that happens behind closed doors when it comes to appraisal fees during loans. This is especially worth knowing about for any home owners and real estate agents for the sake of their clients. Any thoughts? I’d love to hear your take. 

35462423 - closeup of thief taking money out of back pocket over white background

The Issue: I was asked to appraise something challenging, so I quoted a fee that was higher than a standard fee in Sacramento but still reasonable for the job because the house was funky. Anyway, I was comfortable with the fee and it was accepted by the AMC (Appraisal Management Company) that the lender hired to manage the appraisal ordering process. But then things got interesting because through the course of the transaction someone showed me an email from the loan officer where I learned the AMC was actually charging the buyer $345 higher than the fee I quoted. What the? That seemed excessive, but the real clincher for me was the email showed a chain of conversation with the AMC where they said I was the one who quoted the much higher fee. Not only was the AMC gouging the buyer in my opinion, but there was a blatant lie that I was the one dictating this fee that was 43% higher than the one I quoted.

Look, I’m not a complainer and I am a total optimist, but this is not okay on so many levels.

Why this matters:

1) Anger & The Real Fee: Let’s remember the appraisal fee charged to the buyer might be far different from what the appraiser actually gets. Thus before becoming angry at the appraiser for charging so much, try to find out what the appraiser is being paid (and what a market rate is for your area too). Is the appraiser actually getting that rush fee your buyer paid too? Keep in mind many AMCs tell appraisers not to discuss fees, so unfortunately it’s not likely you’re going to get an answer from the appraiser (maybe ask the loan officer to dig around). To complicate matters, it’s common for AMCs to tell appraisers NOT to attach an invoice to the appraisal report, so it’s not easy for anyone to find out how much the appraiser made from the fee the buyer paid unless there are disclosure rules from the state.

2) Appraisal Quality: In many cases AMCs are scraping so much off the top that the appraiser really isn’t making a reasonable market fee. It’s easy to gloss over this as insignificant, but it matters because over time if appraisers do not earn market rate fees it is going to weed out more experienced appraisers from doing loan work. Could this impact quality? I think so. By the way, if you didn’t know, an Appraisal Management Company is NOT used during a private valuation such as a divorce, pre-listing appraisal, estate planning, litigation, hard money loan, bankruptcy, etc… By the way, let me make it clear that not all AMCs are bad either.

3) Longer Turn-Times: At times it’s difficult for an AMC to find an appraiser because a property is so unique or it’s in a rural area. This can be frustrating for everyone else in the real estate transaction because it hands-down makes an escrow longer. Yet sometimes the problem isn’t the lack of an available appraiser, but rather the AMC broadcasting an absurdly low fee to countless appraisers for weeks. If the AMC would have simply started the process with a market rate fee and a realistic turn-time, maybe the order would actually be finished by now.

4) Lack of Transparency: California does not require disclosure on the HUD-1 of the fee paid to the appraiser vs the fee paid to the AMC. Since these fees are not separated, there isn’t any transparency as to what the appraiser and AMC are getting. I would think some buyers would be shocked to learn the appraiser didn’t get the full fee in the first place – not to mention a $345 AMC fee. Why would we not disclose these fees? Can’t we do better at being transparent?

I hope this was helpful or interesting. Any thoughts?

New Video: I made a video called “The market isn’t doing the same thing in every neighborhood.” It’s a quick look at three neighborhoods. Watch below (or here).

Questions: What stands out to you most about what I mentioned above? Anything else to add? Did I miss something? What is the best way to avoid working with bad AMCs?

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An open letter to buyers in an aggressive market

Dear Buyers,

Yesterday I talked with a few buyers who are in the trenches of the market. One is feeling frustrated at not getting offers accepted, and the other is starting to feel like affordability is beginning to vanish. I was actually taken aback with the sense of hopelessness felt by the latter individual, so I wanted to share some perspective as an appraiser when it comes to making offers in an aggressive-feeling market. Whether you are in Sacramento or elsewhere, I hope this helps. Any thoughts?

40519811 - empty notebook and pen on table

Advice for buyers in an aggressive market:

1. Shop below your price range: We are in a market where multiple offers are commonplace in many price ranges and neighborhoods. This means if you are qualified up to $300,000 and money is tight, you might want to consider homes that are priced $270,000 to $300,000 instead of just $299,000. This allows you some space in case there is a bidding war.

2. Expect to get beat: Sorry to be a downer, but you probably aren’t going to get into contract on the first home you offer on. Remember, real estate is a bit like dating. You often don’t marry the first person you go out with. So take heart and expect you’ll submit many offers until something sticks.

3. Know when listings usually hit the market: There is a season in real estate, just like there is a season for baseball, weather, or elections. It’s true inventory is sparse, but it’s also true listings don’t start to hit their stride until March through August. Sometimes February will be a stronger than usual month, but we still don’t see the bulk of what’s going to hit the market until May through July / August. If you don’t believe me, look at the light green listings below over the past few years. In short, don’t freak out in February if there isn’t much on the market. 

listings in sacramento - sacramento appraisal blog

4. Don’t let sensational headlines stress you out: Headlines these days often talk about how hot the market is, but my advice would be to read stories carefully and ask a few real estate professionals what they think too. For instance, one headline says “Sacramento will be one of the hottest markets in the nation” as values are projected to increase by 7% in 2017. This one story has seriously saturated the market and I’m hearing this sentence about everywhere I go. The irony though is a 7% price increase is about what happened in 2016, which means the headline could have just as easily said, “The market looks like it’ll do about the same thing this year.” I don’t say this to gloss over how competitive the market is, but only to highlight we need to read articles carefully and think critically rather than immediately stress out.

5. Don’t mistake low-ball pricing for the market: Some properties are attracting 15-20 offers, but my sense is when that happens it’s usually more about low pricing than the actual market. This week I saw a property listed at $290,000 that probably should have been listed at $350,000. We can look at the 15 offers and bemoan how intense it is out there or we can realize this one was priced ridiculously low.

6. Be careful of bidding up to “no man’s land”: While it’s plausible to think the contract price might get pushed up a bit with multiple offers, don’t forget to be realistic about what the home is actually worth. If you know you don’t have cash to pay for the difference between a realistic appraised value and the contract price, you might not want to offer that high then. Somehow you’re going to need to stand out as a buyer to the seller, but an unrealistic offer well beyond a reasonable value probably isn’t going to help you in the long run.

7. Realize cash doesn’t always win: There is a false idea that cash investors from the Bay Area are beating out financed buyers all the time – especially those bringing very little money to the table. The truth is 1 in 4 sales last year in Sacramento County were FHA buyers who put down 3.5% (or less if they used down-payment assistance). Keep in mind only 14% of all sales were cash during this same time. Moreover, 27.4% of all sales under $500,000 had FHA loans in 2016 in Sacramento County.

8. Find a way to stand out: There could be multiple offers, so you need to figure out a way to stand out and make a positive impression on the seller. Of course the strength of your offer is the first place to start, but beyond that find a way to make an emotional connection with the seller too if possible. I might recommend brainstorming ideas with your agent. When my wife and I bought a house a couple of years ago there was actually a higher offer on the property, but the seller accepted our offer instead. When touring the home we were fortunate to meet the seller and we hit it off a bit. During the conversation the seller mentioned her son was going to start at a new private school. Anyway, when we submitted the offer we wrote a personal letter complimenting the house and reminding the seller who we were. We also looked up the school and found it was $1400 per month. We then wrote in our offer we were going to give the seller an extra $1400 at the close of escrow to help pay for her son’s school (The underwriter actually freaked out because she’d never seen a buyer do that). I’m not saying you need to do something like this, but in our case it definitely made a huge impression. It showed that we listened, we truly cared, and we were very serious about the home. 

9. Listen to your agent: You probably know the market pretty well by now because you’re scouring listings in an obsessive compulsive way on Redfin, Zillow, and MLS. This also means you are most likely going to find your eventual home before your agent does. That’s how it works these days. Just remember finding the home is the easy part, but the most important thing your agent can do for you is negotiate on your behalf and offer professional guidance and advice along the way. Will you listen?

I hope this was helpful.

Sincerely,

Ryan

Questions: What piece of advice resonates with you? What is #10? Did I miss something? I’d love to hear your take.

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An appraiser’s take on that $250,000,000 house

Have you seen that house for sale at $250,000,000 in Bel Air? After checking it out I’m certainly taken aback with its features, but I also have some things on my mind as an appraiser. Let’s kick around some ideas together. Any thoughts?

Bruce Makowsky BAM Luxury Development

Image Source: Bruce Makowsky/BAM Luxury Development

1) Listings vs Sales: Let’s be real. This listing isn’t a big deal unless it sells. If it only sits on the market at $250M, then it wasn’t a $250M house. We say things like, “This is the most expensive house in the United States,” but it really might only be one of the most expensive listings unless it sells.

2) Fat Concessions: This house comes with enormous concessions. According to Bloomberg, the listing comes with “150 pieces of original artwork, $30 million worth of classic cars (owner’s estimate), a dozen high-performance motorcycles, and a deactivated helicopter.” At the very least the owner is giving the buyer $30M in personal property, so it starts to sound like we might be dealing with a $220M house instead. This is exactly why appraisers ask agents if there were any concessions or credits in the contract price. Would the house have sold at the same price if the personal property was not included? In other words, did the sale at $500,000 only close that high because there was a $50,000 car included in the sale? If all the comps are around $450,000 and there is one “Lone Ranger” at $500,000 (with a car), then we probably have to subtract that car out of the purchase price if we’re going to use it as a comp. Here’s more information on concessions.

3) Publicity & Overpricing: For the sake of conversation let’s assume this house is overpriced. On one hand the benefit of the sensational figure of $250M is the property has generated an incredible amount of publicity. That’s huge in real estate because it can help find the right buyer. But on the other hand, if publicity doesn’t lead to contracts, then it’s really just temporary attention. It’s like Eddie Murphy’s former house in Granite Bay that was listed for $12M in January 2014. The property got some air time and print for sure, but guess what? After 954 days it is still on the market for $12M. Thus we remember the importance of being priced realistically according to the market. Does the price line up with other competitive sales and current pendings / listings? Or is the property priced far differently than anything else that is similar? Whether values are increasing or declining, we have to ask these questions and pay close attention to realistic comps (that’s what an appraiser is going to do). In this case I really don’t know if the property is overpriced, but the inclusion of personal property  at $30M+ is a tell that it might be.

4) Bathroom Adjustment: This home has 38,000 sq ft and a whopping 21 bathrooms, so if we see a comp with 20 bathrooms, we should make a value adjustment, right? I mean, we were taught by our mentors to give a standard $5,000 or $10,000 adjustment any time there is an extra bathroom, so there has to be one. Okay, hopefully you get I’m being facetious. This example reminds us to not give token made-up adjustments for differences in bedroom count and bathroom count unless it’s really reasonable to do so (and there is support to do so in the market). In this case I would be shocked to see someone adjust such a petty amount because it’s not like billionaires walk in there and say, “Shoot, I would’ve paid $10,000 more if there were at least 22 bathrooms.” More on adjustments here.

I hope that was helpful or interesting.

Questions: What else stands out to you? What is #5? I’d love to hear your take.

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