Three dangerous ways to choose comps

It’s easy to get into value trouble when choosing comps, and today I want to highlight three ways to do that. I’ve observed each of these methods very recently, which is why I hoped to kick around some ideas together. I could have just as well entitled this post, “Three ways appraisers DON’T choose comps.” Any thoughts?

choosing comps for appraisal - sacramento appraisal blog

Three dangerous ways to choose comps:

1) Price: When putting a value on something, searching by price is a quick way to NOT see the full picture. For instance, if we pull comps for a $750,000 sale by looking at all sales between $725,000 and $775,000, what we end up getting is a limited view of one price range. Have we truly found any similar properties or just the ones that have sold in that range and happen to support the contract price? The danger of searching by price is we can end up letting a few high sales impose a value on a property instead of letting similar homes paint a picture of value. This is why sometimes appraisers disregard the “comps” they are given from the real estate community because they are only similar in price rather than square footage, age, condition, location, upgrades, etc… If you are in the habit of searching by price in MLS when pulling comps, I might recommend searching by square footage instead (or by a parameter you think will help you make quality comparisons).

2) Capitalization Rates: The 2-4 unit market has been heating up in the Sacramento area. In fact, the new Yardi Matrix 2017 Winter Report says multi-family rents in Sacramento will grow by 9.6% this year. If that’s how things shake out, we’ll basically have seen a 30% increase in rent over the past few years. Wow!! Anyway, I’m finding news of the hot rental market is causing some 2-4 unit properties to be priced according to unrealistic cap rates instead of realistic comps and rental income (or even realistic cap rates). What I mean is sometimes comments in MLS say “check out the 8% cap rate” when the neighborhood really isn’t getting rates that low. Maybe surrounding properties are showing rates closer to 9-10%. This might not seem like a big deal, but when we plug an 8% rate into the cap rate formula instead of a realistic 9-10% rate, the value can be substantially different. My advice is to be cautious about imposing a cap rate on a property.

3) Price Per Sq Ft: In real estate it’s easy to see a sale down the street and then apply the price per sq ft from the sale to the subject property. But what if the price per sq ft doesn’t make any sense for the subject? The truth is smaller homes tend to have a much higher price per sq ft than larger ones, and dissimilar homes might actually have a far different price per sq ft too. Thus my advice is to be cautious about imposing a certain price per sq ft on a property when searching for comps. Let’s pay attention to price per sq ft figures, but at some point we have to ask the question, what are similar properties actually selling for? By the way, if you haven’t seen my Starbucks cups analogy, it’s a fun way to think about price per sq ft. 

The Big Idea of Imposing: All of these methodologies essentially help impose a value on a property because we end up applying a metric or price range to comp selection instead of looking for what is truly similar. Thankfully there isn’t only one way to search for comps, but no matter what we do it’s important to try to be objective and discover value rather than doing something that might impose value on a property. Know what I’m saying? By the way, here is how I tend to choose comps as an appraiser just in case you’re peeved I only told you what not to do.

Blogging Class on Thursday: In a couple of days I’m teaching a two-hour class at SAR called Successful Real Estate Blogging. This will be incredibly practical and my goal is for you to leave with insight on how to be effective. Click HERE for details.

I hope that was helpful or interesting.

Questions: Did I miss anything? Anything you’d add? I’d love to hear your take.

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How will appraisers deal with the new water-conserving plumbing fixtures law?

The Governor doesn’t like my toilet. Or my faucet. Or my shower head. If you didn’t know, on January 1, 2017 it’s going to become law in California for residential and commercial property owners to install water-conserving plumbing fixtures if the property was built before 1994. You can read the details of the law here, but let’s consider how this might play out. I’d love to hear your take too. Any thoughts?

Question: Will home values be affected depending on whether water-conserving plumbing fixtures are present or not? How will appraisers deal with this new law?

1) Wait and see: This is one of those issues that is only theoretical right now. We are going to have to wait to see how it plays out. That’s the truth.

2) Laws & value: Just because a law exists doesn’t necessarily mean value exists. For instance, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms are required by law in certain instances in California, but the lack of these items doesn’t mean the house is worth less. Is the market that sensitive where buyers would walk through and say, “I’m going to pay $25 less for this house because a smoke detector is missing in the bedroom”? I doubt it. My sense is buyers would probably pay the same amount for a house whether smoke detectors or CO alarms are there or not. I realize toilets are more costly than smoke detectors though, so that is something we have to consider.

3) Expectations of buyers & value: A key issue is whether buyers will expect water-conserving plumbing fixtures once sellers are required to begin disclosing if there are any non-compliant fixtures at a property. The truth is right now buyers really don’t expect these fixtures. Have you ever seen a contract where a buyer said, “Seller to update all plumbing fixtures or provide a credit to the buyer to cure the outdated fixtures”? Probably not. This doesn’t mean buyers aren’t willing to pay more for newer features, but only that buyers don’t tend to draw a line of demarcation for these features right now when making an offer on a house. But will they in the future because of this law? In short, if it becomes a big deal to buyers, then it needs to be a big deal for appraisers. If buyers come to a place where they expect a price discount when specific water-conserving plumbing fixtures are not present, then it is a value issue. If buyers could care less, then it really wouldn’t be prudent for appraisers to penalize a property for not having these items – even though there is a law in place.

4) The silliness of focusing on small-ticket items: Let’s be cautious about asking appraisers to analyze the value impact of a toilet that flushes 1.5 gallons vs 4 gallons. Can appraisers or anyone for that matter really be that precise? Is the market honestly that sensitive to the point where buyers would pay more or less for this minor difference? Let’s be realistic and consider many buyers would likely notice the age of the toilet rather than how much it flushes exactly. On a different level though, some buyers want/need toilets that have a more powerful flush because… well, you know. On the other hand, if the cost to replace plumbing fixtures throughout a house is going to be thousands of dollars, then that is something buyers might really care about.

5) The way lenders handle this is a big deal: The state law doesn’t require sellers to replace fixtures when selling a home, but sellers do need to disclose non-compliant fixtures. Thus when lenders read about non-compliant fixtures in a purchase contract, will they require plumbing fixtures to be updated? That is the million-dollar question. What will lenders do during a refinance too? Will they ask appraisers to identify if there are any non-compliant fixtures? That would be a bad idea since appraisers aren’t trained to identify such fixtures. If lenders are strict about applying this law, it can end up impacting how sellers prepare to sell their homes, repairs buyers request in contracts, and what lenders ask appraisers to do when these features are not present. 

I hope that was interesting or helpful.

Recent Podcast: By the way, I did a podcast a couple of weeks ago with Marguerite Crespillo. It’s always fun to talk shop. Listen below (or here).

Questions: What impact do you think this law will have on real estate (if any)? Did I miss something? Appraiser colleagues, what else would you add? I’d love to hear your take.

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That place where marijuana & real estate meet

Marijuana is on my mind. In recent weeks Californians voted to make recreational marijuana legal, and I can’t help but consider the impact it might have on real estate. Here are a few things I’ve been mulling over. Anything you’d add?

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1) Land Value: All of a sudden land that is ripe for marijuana growing is looking pretty attractive. I’m not talking about tiny postage stamp lots in subdivisions, but rather larger-sized parcels in outlying areas. The truth is many savvy land buyers have already been making their move on large parcels in surrounding areas to Sacramento, but there are going to be more opportunities out there. I saw one listing recently where an agent said, “Good for ‘income-producing crops'” (code for pot). For further reference, here is an article discussing a “green rush” in Yolo County (people setting up marijuana businesses). 

2) Home Experimentation: I expect to see more owners and renters trying to grow their own weed at home. Some will grow a few plants, but others will aim to start a business to make some money in an economy that still isn’t all that vibrant.

3) Commercial Vacancies & Rents: If California ends up being anything like Denver, which has nearly 4 million square feet of commercial space used for cannabis production, I’m guessing we’ll see more interest in industrial properties and higher rents in certain areas. Goodbye commercial vacancies. Here is an image from The Sacramento Bee to show all the locations where pot can be grown in Sacramento. Image created by Nathaniel Levine.

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4) Disclosures: Talking about marijuana in contracts, listings, and appraisals isn’t anything new in real estate, but my sense is if it becomes more common to see pot growing in homes, we’ll need to hone our skills and consider what disclosure needs to look like. By the way, could the smell of a nearby pot farm need to be disclosed? As an appraiser I’m concerned with the condition of the house. There is obviously a huge difference between a massive grow operation with hundreds or thousands of plants and a home owner with a few plants. What I’m going to be looking for is anything that might make an impact on value or a health and safety issue – exposed wiring, over loaded plug-ins, poor ventilation, mold, etc… I’m not there to nark or judge by any stretch, but only figure out the value (and discuss and photograph anything that impacts value).

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5) Advertising: I took my family to Portland last week to enjoy Thanksgiving, and it was amazing to see how much advertising there was for pot (because it’s legal there). Everywhere I turned Downtown there was another weed billboard, A-frame sign, or a green cross (the symbol of a dispensary). Please don’t think I’m dissing Portland because I love the city and can’t wait to go back. I’m just saying we might expect to see the same thing in California when it comes to advertising. Can signs impact the feel of a city or neighborhood? Will there be more signs in certain areas than others? Time will tell.

6) Marijuana Branding: I’m waiting for more in the real estate community to go public with their MJ branding. Last month a Sacramento law firm announced its marijuana practice. Ironically one of the partners has the last name Kronick, which is oh so close to Chronic. Anyway, there is still available shelf space for weed branding such as “Marijuana Realtor”, “Cheebah Appraiser”, and “Mary Jane Lender.” I’m kidding. Sort of.

7) Loans on “Grow” Properties: Some lenders don’t want to lend on properties that are being used for marijuana growth (keep in mind this likely doesn’t mean just a few plants). Here is some direction from a certain bank I sometimes work for when it comes to this issue. This unnamed bank sent out a message to its appraisers regarding grow houses:

####### Bank is currently unable to lend on any property with marijuana grow operations. The marijuana industry is state regulated and ####### Bank is federally regulated. Therefore, we are not in a position to lend to borrowers with income from that source nor can we lend on properties with active marijuana grow rooms or facilities. 

If you encounter a property with an active marijuana grow operation, please take at least one descriptive photo, complete your inspection of the property then cease work on the file and immediately contact your ####### Bank Appraisal Coordinator. Please do not attempt to quote ####### Bank lending policy. We will take care of that and you will, of course, be compensated for the time you’ve already invested in the appraisal.

I hope that was interesting or helpful.

Questions: Anything to add? Did I miss something? What impact do you think the legalization of marijuana might have on real estate? If you are located in a state where marijuana has been legal, what advice do you have for Sacramento? I’d love to hear your take.

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How to figure out what an accessory dwelling is worth

How much is that accessory dwelling worth? How do we really put a value on it? It’s not always easy to figure that out in real estate, so I wanted to share some of the issues I tend to think through as an appraiser when there is an accessory unit on a property. Anything you’d add? I’d love to hear your take.

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Things to consider when valuing a property with an accessory dwelling:

1) Comps: How much are other homes with accessory units selling for? This is a fundamental question to ask. Since data is often limited we might have to look through years of neighborhood sales (or competitive neighborhoods) to try to find something that has sold with an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). Even if the sales are older or a bit different in size we can at the least come up with a percentage or price adjustment to try to get a sense of what the market has been willing to pay. Ideally we’d find three model match sales in the past 90 days, but that’s probably not going to happen. Remember, we might not use the really old sales as comps, but we can still use some of the older data to get a sense for how the market has behaved regarding accessory units.

2) ADU Minimum: At a minimum an accessory unit needs to have a bathroom, sleeping area, and kitchen. This means an outbuilding without a bathroom really isn’t an accessory unit. And that Man Cave / She Shed isn’t an accessory dwelling because it’s basically a game room meant for hanging out instead of living.

3) 2nd Unit or Not: Are we dealing with a second unit or an accessory unit? It might sound like I’m splitting hairs to ask this question, but there is actually a difference between a full-fledged second unit and something that would be classified as an “accessory” unit (or “Granny flat”, “Mother-in-Law” unit, or “Guest Quarters”). I wrote a post here to describe the difference. In short, whether something is a full second unit or merely an accessory dwelling could potentially change the way we approach valuing the unit and which comps we choose.

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4) Just a House: How much would the property sell for if it just had a house without an accessory unit? This doesn’t help us put a value on the accessory unit, but in a sense it helps us start gauging value for the neighborhood. This at least gives us a place to begin.

5) Combining Square Footage: Often times an accessory unit’s square footage gets lumped into the main square footage of the house. This happens in MLS and sometimes it happens in Tax Records. So we might read a home is 2000 sq ft when in reality the main home is only 1400 sq ft and the accessory unit is 600 sq ft. In this example we don’t really have a 2000 sq ft house but rather a 1400 sq ft house with an accessory unit. The question becomes, could the subject property sell on par with homes that are 2000 sq ft? Maybe. Maybe not. This is where we have to do research. I will say quite a few properties are priced based on a lumped square footage and then they end up sitting instead of selling. This is not always the case, but it reminds us to be careful about assuming a home with an accessory unit is always going to have the same value as a larger home.

6) Permits: Was the accessory unit permitted? If you are hoping to see more significant value recognized for an accessory dwelling, having permits is a key factor. My friend Gary Kristensen in Portland wrote a post on ADUs and he says, “Provide the appraiser and your lender with documentation that your ADU was legally permitted. Also, list information about rental income, expenses, and detail construction costs (if your unit was recently constructed).” Good advice, Gary.

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7) Rent: Can the accessory unit be legally rented? What is the market rent? This is where we might use the Income Approach to come up with a value (another blog post). Imagine an accessory dwelling has a market rent of $1000 per month. Now imagine an appraiser says the extra unit is worth $10,000. Does that seem reasonable? Doesn’t it seem low right away since the unit would be 100% paid for after 10 months? Or imagine a unit rents for $300 but it’s being given $150,000 in value. Doesn’t that seem excessive based on the low rent? Thus sometimes when we know market rent we can begin to sniff out whether a value adjustment is even approaching reasonable.

8) Square Footage Adjustment: If I’m adjusting $50 per sq ft for extra square footage in my report, would it be reasonable to see that same adjustment for the 600 sq ft accessory dwelling? This is only a question I ask myself. There isn’t a constant where the market will pay the same amount for square footage for the main dwelling and something else (converted basement, converted garage, accessory unit). Part of it depends on quality too. If the extra unit has a quality clearly below the main house, it’s probably not reasonable to see buyers pay the same amount for square footage outside the house. Though if the quality is the same, we might be looking at an adjustment that is similar or the same to that which is given to the house. Again, there is no rule here. This is only a question I ask myself in the background when approaching an accessory unit. I would never automatically give an adjustment like this. Remember, square footage adjustments are NOT based on the entire value of the property divided by the square footage.

9) Cost vs. Value: We all know the cost of something doesn’t necessarily translate to the value, but cost can help us gauge quality. There might be a difference in value for an accessory unit that cost $125,000 compared to $15,000, right? This is basic logic, but let’s not overlook the importance of it.

I hope that was helpful.

Questions: Anything you’d add? Did I miss something? If you work in real estate, how do you come up with the value of an accessory unit? I’d love to hear your take.

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