Hypothetical houses and hypothetical markets


Appraiser’s evaluate hypothetical houses everyday - let me explain. Here are some of the examples:

  1. New construction - we appraise what the home will be worth upon completion as if it was built at the time we write our report, using the data that is given to us. Without this valuable tool banks wouldn’t be able to make informed investment decisions and homeowners would be left at the mercy of overpriced builders.

  2. Exterior only appraisals - everyday appraisers are on the streets inspecting properties from the street, or “Drive bys” as their called for short. These are most often used by lenders considering foreclosure. They want to know if their asset is still in good shape and worth enough to cover the remaining loan. In this instance the appraiser assumes that the interior of the home is in similar condition/quality to the exterior. We then use public records, prior multi list data and other sources to determine a value of the hypothetical house that all of that information tells us.

  3. Regular appraisals - even when the appraiser has all the facts, and inspects the property themselves, there are things that the appraiser has to assume. We assume that the couch in the living room or the bedroom dresser isn’t hiding a gaping hole - we never move the furniture to check. We assume that what we see is consistent with what we can’t see.

All of these have their place, and are needed - but they also have a risk. An appraiser is always evaluating some degree of a “Hypothetical House,” the house that they can see, and assuming the rest. What if the assumption is wrong? Of the above, the most likely to be incorrect as to the real value of the “Real Home” is the drive by - the more assumptions that have to be employed, the more potential error is inserted into the system.

Appraisers play a part in the overall health of the real estate system.

  1. Real estate agents - help to inform and educate buyers and sellers

  2. Loan officers - help to ensure that the borrower is fit to secure a loan

  3. Home inspectors - help to ensure that the property is safe and secure

  4. Appraisers - help to ensure that the dwelling is fit to lien for the loan

Take any cog out of this machine, and the overall health suffers. But that is exactly what we see beginning to happen, and all in the name of making more money, faster.

The current trend is towards appraisers not inspecting the property at all. They being given a report prepared by another party, performed by that third party without any necessary education on how to inspect a house. Appraisers are then expected to make value determinations based on that information. Can they produce credible results? Only as credible as the inspection, but yes. If this is the move that is coming to the real estate industry, then these inspectors need to be held to high standards. An appraiser trainee must train for a minimum of 300 hours and have 75 hours of education before they can inspect a home on their own. With this new move, a dangerous step is being taken back towards the early 2000’s where appraisers only had to inspect from the street… and this had a direct contribution to the housing collapse of 2008 (along with massive mortgage fraud on the part of the banks pushing for more money, faster… does anyone hear an echo?)

The further appraisals are removed from “Real Houses” and pushed towards valuing “Hypothetical Houses” the further we will move from actual “Real Estate Markets” and further towards “Hypothetical Real Estate Markets.” When these two collide, trillions of dollars go up in smoke in an instant.


Over listing your home will cost you money.


We see it everyday- a home is listed shooting for the moon, a price that will never see a contract- but who does it hurt? In the case of Indiana County, it’s hurt 50% of sellers.

Lets look at a hypothetical situation to better understand the issue:

  1. A seller sits down with an agent to list their home. During the conversation, a listing price is agreed to that is 20% above the actual market value. This could happen for a few reasons:

    1. The seller has a mortgage that is far above the current market value and they are hopeful to get a sale price that covers the mortgage

    2. The seller has an expectation that is far above market value

    3. Complexity of the property made it difficult for the agent to analyze

    4. Inexperienced agents with a focus on commission rather than educating the seller regarding market trends

    5. In the case of a For Sale By Owner, the seller may lack the experience to price their home

  2. The home is on the market, and buyers begin to search:

    1. Buyers who are in the price range to shop for the subject’s market value + 20%, look at the subject and see that it is far inferior to other properties, and walk away.

    2. Buyers who can afford the subject property at the market value may never look at it, because it is listed outside of their price range.

  3. The home sits on the market. In the case of Indiana County and portions of Armstrong County where these trends have been seen, they sit for a long time. The normal 3 - 6 month marketing time passes and then 9 months and then 10 months. (Crickets)

  4. The seller and agent get serious as the listing contract nears expiration. They begin/continue to drive the list price down. They finally get to the market value.

    1. Buyers who can afford the property finally see it within their search parameters.

    2. Buyers/Agents see the marketing time and price decrease history and assume there is something wrong with the property OR that the seller is desperate

  5. Buyers, holding all the cards in the deal, finally make an offer.

Initially listing the home well above market value, often leads to the home selling below market value. In the case of Indiana County this, among other factors, has resulted in declining home prices in rural market areas.

How to prepare a GREAT CMA


We know that pricing properties in some markets can feel like grasping at straws. The more unique the property or the area, the more difficult this task becomes. We hope these steps that appraisers follow in the course of developing value opinions will be informative and helpful to you.

  1. Determine your market area. Location, location, location. Depending on the property that you are representing, your market area could be a single street or an entire county. Major differences in marketability can be found by moving from one neighborhood to another, so when expanding outside of the immediate area ensure that your buyer pool would truly consider these expanded properties as well.

  2. Look at the sales in the immediate market over the last 1-3 years. This will help to give an idea of what the immediate area can bear as far as values. If your price is above the 3 year high for the area, there should be a VERY good reason.

  3. Narrow in on the types of properties over 1-3 years. Now that you have a general idea of the broad market, begin to refine your search. In some markets, you will have enough sales to only consider the last 6 months. With unique properties you may need to go further back in time. Consider the main factors in the buyer pool for your property. These include:

    1. Larger than typical acreage - If your subject has a city lot, stay away from the larger parcels. Sometimes appraisers, in order to bracket other amenities and due to lack of sales, may include such a property, but this requires expertise in vacant land sales to accomplish credible adjustments.

    2. Quality of the construction - If your subject is a standard 100 year old home, stay away from the custom built house with marble floors.

    3. Condition of the property - try to stay in the general age group of your subject, and consider recent renovations that have/haven’t been performed.

    4. Lower numbers of bedrooms and baths - the buyer pool for one bedroom homes with one bathroom won’t be looking at 5 bedroom homes with 4 bathrooms, and visa versa. Homes with 1 - 2 bedrooms have a drastically different marketability from even 3 bedroom homes that should be considered.

  4. Pick your top sales. Bracket the amenities of the home you’re representing, selecting properties a little superior and inferior for each major marketable component (lot size, quality, condition, bedroom/bathroom count, etc). Look at the best sales you have over the last three years and look at the range that is indicated. Begin to “squeeze” in within that range considering which are superior and inferior to your subject, coming to a informed range that you can advise your buyer/seller with.

  5. Only after the above consider listings. Everyone wants their house to sell for more than its worth, which makes listings fundamentally flawed for value determination. Until a property is sold, a listing price is only a representation of what a seller would like to get for the property, not what a buyer was willing to pay.

What NOT to do:

  1. Don’t go 60+ miles away unless you’re representing a highly unique property.

  2. Don’t take the sales of the area, and come up with the average.

  3. Don’t compare a 2 bedroom home to only 4 bedroom homes.

  4. Don’t simply search properties higher than what the seller wants and try to “make it work”

  5. Don’t look at only listings and do the above

  6. Don’t use Zillow. Don’t EVER use Zillow. By their own admission, 50% of their Zestimates nationwide are off by more than 5%. In other words, outside of highly homogeneous recent building plans, they’re numbers are worthless.

    For example, the owner of Zillow himself sold his home for 40% less than what Zillow estimated…

    1. Lets look at another example from our area:

This is 162 Glade Run Road, Kittanning PA 16201. This .624 acre property for years was “Zestimated” at $112,350. On February 28, 2019 the property sold for $8,000… an error of 93%. BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE!! Once the property transferred, Zillow adjusted the new Zestimate.

This is 162 Glade Run Road, Kittanning PA 16201. This .624 acre property for years was “Zestimated” at $112,350. On February 28, 2019 the property sold for $8,000… an error of 93%. BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE!! Once the property transferred, Zillow adjusted the new Zestimate.

Screenshot: 06/24/2019. Despite that selling price, it is still estimated to be worth $102,602. In short, Zillow can not even be trusted where there are recent sales. A drop of just 10%, when the data shows a drop of 93%.

Screenshot: 06/24/2019. Despite that selling price, it is still estimated to be worth $102,602. In short, Zillow can not even be trusted where there are recent sales. A drop of just 10%, when the data shows a drop of 93%.

Avoid these poor practices that will lead to a property expiring without a sale, drastically long marketing times or a price that won’t be supported and will “kill the deal.”

Under improvements / Over improvements


How much is the 4th pool worth on a property? How about the 29th bathroom? How about the 20th garage? These are absurd examples of “over improvements” in almost any market (unless your market included royal mansions), and present examples of how over improvements diminish in return as the number/quality of amenities increasingly exceed what is normal for a market area.

How do you value a home with one bedroom where 4 is typical? What about a 600 sq ft ranch in a neighborhood of 5,000 sq ft contemporary homes? What about a home with only a wood stove as a heat source? These are examples of under improvements and during valuation a key factor must be considered - “What portion of the market would be willing to purchase such a home?”

Decades of data, nationwide support the fact that buyers gravitate towards what is typical, and the buyer pool diminishes as you deviate from the mean in any particular amenity. Diminished buyer pools result in diminished demand, and therefore diminished value per unit. This is a principle across many economic fields and applies to real estate as well.


Another way of stating this is that “The more of something you have, the less each individual thing is worth,” and one of the easiest and most consistent ways of seeing this in the market is land.

arm land.PNG

Notice that as you increase the number of acres, the return divided by the total number of acres decreases. Some properties may have a better location in Armstrong County than others, and others may have sold above/below market value, but as a general rule, the trend is clear. Other amenities will have different shaped graphs - take pools for example. In the lower end of the market, pools offer no contributory value. The buyer pool in this range may not have the resources to maintain a pool, and therefore it is seen as a negative by part of the market, positive by some, and a net neutral overall. However, in the higher end of the market, this amenity can have a return (though nearly never higher than the cost of installation). However, imagine a buyers reaction to a second pool on a half acre lot. This would be seen as a liability that needs to be fixed not as an amenity, and therefore have a negative appeal. The second pool’s value on the graph would drop below zero, and so on.

When building/remodeling a home it is vital to consider, “What is normal for my market/buyer pool?” The wider of a divergence from “normal” will result in decreasing returns and difficult sales in the future.