What is Real Estate Value and Valuation - dummies

By Nicholas Wallwork

Value is easy, right? It’s the price you pay for a property? Well, it’s not quite that simple — price and value aren’t always the same thing.

Real estate appraisal or property valuation is the process of determining what a property is actually worth. This may or may not be the same as its price.

Appraisers go under different names depending on where you are in the world; real estate appraiser, property valuer, and chartered surveyor are the most common names. The terms appraiser, valuer, and surveyor are used interchangeably.

real estate appraisal
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Compare price to value in more detail

A property’s price (how much the property costs to purchase) can be very different from its value (what the property is worth). For example, a property may actually be worth in the region of $300,000 but the seller may have an inflated idea of its value and insist on putting it on the market at $350,000 — or he may have been guided to set the price high by an especially greedy agent who wants a higher commission.

A buyer with a firm grip on valuation will understand that $350,000 isn’t a fair market comparison for that property, and refuse to cough up. But an unsuspecting and inexperienced investor could fall into the trap and end up overpaying.

There are a number of reasons why a buyer may gladly pay a price that’s lower than the property’s value. The buyer could, for example, be buying a property from a family member, who is cutting her a favorable deal and pricing lower than the market value. Or it could be a distressed sale where the property is priced lower than it’s worth for a quick sale, or perhaps it’s being sold at auction and the bidding doesn’t reach the expected levels.

A buyer may also be willing to pay more than a property’s market value in order to secure a particularly attractive investment in a highly competitive market. That’s right, sometimes an investor may have arrived at her own valuation that’s higher than the comparative market value, maybe because she plans on changing the use for a niche high-income strategy (like short-term rentals, for example).

If, when you’re valuing a property, you’re using a different valuation method from the person doing the appraisal, you may well arrive at a different value. That’s not necessarily a cause for concern, as long as you’re sure of your own numbers.

The purpose of appraisals

In general, appraisals or valuations are used in a number of contexts, from dividing up assets during a divorce to taxation. But for the real estate investor, valuation is used to determine

  • How much you can borrow to purchase a property (because appraisals inform mortgage loans)
  • How much you should reasonably expect to pay for a property
  • How much a property could generate in ongoing income (where income is the investment goal)
  • How much you could sell the property for after adding value (where capital growth is the investment goal)

Valuation is particularly important in real estate because each property is different. As an asset class, property is unique. When you buy two shares of stock on the same day, both shares are identical. But that’s not the case with real estate.

Even two properties on the same street can be very different. In fact, even two houses next to each other, even if they’re both identical in size and layout, will vary a great deal in terms of condition, fixtures, and fittings and presentation. Their value will differ accordingly.

Valuation is also necessary because most people fund their investments through some sort of financing, like a mortgage. And when you’re borrowing the money to buy a property, the lender will want to know that the property is worth what it’s loaning you. If you default on the loan, forcing the lender to foreclose on the property and sell it, the lender wants to know that there’s enough equity in the property to get its money back. In this way, real estate valuation protects the bank, as well as you.

Factors that influence property value

So, what kinds of factors impact a property’s value? The key factors are

  • The size of the property: For example, it makes sense that a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house will be worth more than a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in the same town.
  • The condition of the property: This is key because it’s how so many investors add value to a property. By renovating and improving a property, even if you’re not doing major structural remodeling, you can increase its value in a relatively short amount of time.
  • How the property is (or can be) used: For one thing, a commercial property will be valued differently from a residential property. What’s more, various usage restrictions may also impact the value. For example, if zoning restrictions mean it’s impossible to turn a commercial property into a luxury block of apartments, then that restriction may impact how much buyers are willing to pay.
  • The property’s location: Compare a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house with a smaller house in the same town and it makes sense that the bigger house is worth more. But things get foggier when you bring different locations into the mix. Compare that generous family home in Des Moines, Iowa, with a studio apartment in Midtown Manhattan and the smaller property is likely to be worth more. That’s because different locations are more desirable and valuable than others. Additional local factors like a nearby, highly rated public school or great transportation links can also drive up a property’s value.
  • Supply of property: A few years ago, there was a lot in the real estate news about Bulgarian apartments. Investors were piling into the country in droves, and new apartment buildings were being thrown up left, right, and center in coastal and ski resort towns. The result? A market that ended up with way more supply (new-build apartments) than demand (actual buyers) and apartment blocks sitting empty and unsold. Compare that with, say, a sought-after coastal village location in Cornwall, in England’s beautiful West Country, where supply of properties is relatively low. Because few properties come onto the market, their value is higher than if there was a deluge of available property.
  • Demand for property: Think back to the tiny studio apartment in Midtown Manhattan, and you can see how being in a buoyant real estate market, like New York, can impact a property’s value. In a market where there’s a wealth (pardon the pun) of motivated buyers keen to purchase property, combined with plenty of money to buy, demand goes up — and with it, market value.

Who values real estate?

So, who has a hand in deciding a property’s value? Depending on the circumstances, the following people may all be involved in the process at some point:

  • Sellers: Plenty of sellers do their own homework on what their properties may be worth before they put them on the market. And, at the end of the day, it’s the seller who weighs the agent’s recommendation and agrees on the final price.
  • Buyers: Informed buyers do their own research and analysis, and reach their own conclusions on the fair price for properties.
  • Real estate brokers and agents: Any good real estate broker or agent knows her market inside and out, and she’ll have a really good handle on the likely value of a property. That said, it’s not uncommon for an agent to quote a higher valuation to get a seller’s business (and a juicier commission), even though this can result in an overpriced property languishing on the market for longer than it needs to. So, when an agent gives you a valuation, do your own homework to determine whether that’s a correct and fair price for your market.
  • Professional appraisers, valuers, or surveyors: Whenever you’re seeking funding to buy a property, the lender will send a professional appraiser to value the property. (By “professional,” I mean that many countries require appraisers to be qualified and certified.) Depending on the lender and type of funding, you may have some flexibility to appoint the appraiser yourself, or choose from a shortlist of the lender’s appraisers (this is not unusual on a commercial mortgage in the United Kingdom). Many times, though, the lender will simply appoint its own appraiser, and you’ll have no say in the matter. Either way, you’ll ideally have the option of being present at the valuation.

Be aware that a lender-appointed appraiser may not have a ton of experience in your type of investment; for example, he may specialize in standard residential properties rather than income-generating rentals.