If you're considering selling or refinancing your home, the home's value will play an important role in your decision. A high valuation puts you in a position of strength, while a low valuation may derail you completely. Although you need a licensed appraiser for a true appraisal, you can estimate the value on your own to see if it's worth paying the appraiser's hefty fees for a more precise number. Base your estimate on recently-closed sale prices of comparable neighborhood homes.
A friendly real estate agent can search the multiple listing service for closed sales in your neighborhood. Alternatively, contact your county clerk's office to find out which county office houses deeds. Deeds are public records, and you can search them for free. Use the county's computerized index to search for deeds transferred since a specific date. The transfer date is the date the sale closed. Sale prices are noted on the deeds. Finally, use online property-value sites to search recent sales. For values of homes that haven't recently sold, these sites have little value because their accuracy varies widely from location to location.
Why Closed Sales?
Active sale prices only tell you how much owners want for their homes. Closed sale prices tell you how much owners actually got for their homes. There's no better way to determine market value -- the amount buyers are actually willing to pay -- than to determine how much buyers have paid for homes like yours.
Real Estate is Local
Ideally, "local" means in your neighborhood. If you can't find closed sales in your neighborhood, widen the circle to include neighborhoods similar to yours that are in the same school district. Similar neighborhoods are those considered about equal in terms of the styles and values of homes located there, population stability and access to conveniences such as shopping and public transportation.
Appraisers rarely look back more than three months for the homes they compare to their subject homes. Even three months is a stretch in neighborhoods with rapidly changing markets. The more recently a comparable sold, the more useful it is for estimating your home's value.
Apples to Apples
A good comparable home is on that is similar in terms of style, square footage, and number of bedrooms and baths. In a pinch, compare homes with the same number of levels and about the same complexity of design. For example, a three-bedroom bi-level or raised ranch is essentially a two-floor, rectangular box covered by a roof with one angle. A three-bedroom colonial, on the other hand, may have an irregular shape and multiple roof angles that make it more expensive to build. Therefore, it's not a good comparable for a raised ranch even though it has the same number of levels and bedrooms.
Alternative to Comparables
In challenging real estate markets, such as those with few closed sales or a lot of foreclosures selling below market value, good comparables might be hard to find. In this case, base your value estimate on the average price per-square-foot for your neighborhood or a cluster of adjacent neighborhoods. Add the sale prices of all the homes that have sold. Also, add up all these homes' square footage. Divide each of these totals by the number of homes sold. This gives you the closed sales' average sale price and the average square footage. Divide the average sale price by the average square footage to find the average price per square foot. Multiply this number by your home's square footage for a rough estimate of value.
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