With a click of your mouse you can find out how much money you have in the bank or the current value of your investments to the penny. You can look up the value of your car in the Blue Book and surf EBay to see what antiques and prized art pieces similar to yours are selling for.
Unfortunately, determining how much your home is worth is a lot more complicated. Every piece of property is unique and therefore has a value all its own. The rules of supply and demand government real estate markets and changing market forces impact the value of every property, but market trends impact different properties in different ways. By making improvements or by poorly maintaining their homes, owners affect values. When sellers and buyers use the less than perfect ways described below to price homes or make offers on homes, they can impact the values of nearby properties.
Technology is improving the valuation of homes and the appraisal profession works hard to refine techniques and improve accuracy, but at the end of the day, a house is basically worth what someone will pay for it.
You might begin by deciding why you want to know your house's value. Taxes too high? Pricing to sell? Refinancing or financing a purchase? Taking out a home equity line of credit? Valuing an estate? Personal net worth? You can answer some of these questions with a lot less effort than others.
Ranked from easiest to most difficult, here are four ways to find out how much your house is worth.
AVM Estimates. Those calculators on real estate web sites that value homes are called automatic valuation models or AVMs. They were developed by lenders like Fannie Mae and popularized by Zillow. AVMs are algorithms that estimate values based on the wide range of data, including local sales, prices and inventories. Like all calculators, they are no better than the quality of their data. They have difficulty accounting for factors like improvements to homes. Some tend to value on the high side, others on the low side. If you a good picture of the value of your home, look it up on four different AVMs. You'll be surprised at the variations, which suggests you might get a rough estimate if you average all four. You might also think twice about using an AVM estimate to make major decision like selling your home or making an offer.
CMA. If you are already working with a real estate agent, ask them for a CMA, or competitive market analysis, or your home. Unlike the AVM, a real estate professional will do the analysis and will include the value of improvements and hyper-local changes that might affect the value of your property like transportation improvements, new retail services and schools. Your real estate agent also has access to the latest sales and inventory data from your local multiple listing service. Ask for a download of the latest data for your locale.
Do it Yourself. Even if you know a lot about real estate and economics it's hard to come in with a good valuation on your own because good local data is so hard to find. The best sources are multiple listing services and firms like DataQuest, CoreLogic and RealtyTrac that cost money. Few MLSs make their data available to the public but you can get good, current MLS data from your Realtor if you ask for them. By monitoring listings and sales activity in your neighborhood through online real estate sites you can get a good feel for the market. Long times on market and price cuts are not good signs; fast sales are good signs.
Appraisals. When it comes to financing a home, an appraisal by a licensed professional is almost always required. Sometimes lenders will do an AVM estimate on a refi when they know the owner. Appraisals include on-site inspections and the selection of "comps" or comparable sales - homes of the same size close to you that have sold in the past six months. Appraisers also review local market trends. An appraisal may not be the final word on the value of your home in an absolute sense; appraisers are human and two appraisers may come up with two different values. However, it's unlikely someone would buy your house for more than the appraised value plus the down payment.
By following market trends on local real estate web sites including your local newspaper, real estate brokerages and the larger real estate listing sites that provide research and data you can get a good feel for what to expect in your local market. Real estate is all about supply and demand. When a new employer comes to town or a new plant opens, the demand for housing increases and prices rise. When the opposite occurs, prices fall. Keep track of inventory trends - they are the keys to tomorrow's prices.