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Can You Trust Zillow’s Home Price Zestimate? In a Word: No.

I got an email from Zillow last week. Seems my house has gone up in value another $2,000+ dollars in the past 30 days. And it’s going to rise another 3.5% in the next year, according to their Zestimate®. Fab!

Except that it’s just speculation. When it comes to Zillow’s Zestimates, you have to take the numbers with a grain of salt. Make that a big shake of salt, right over your shoulder. And maybe a stiff drink. And a frank conversation with your real estate agent, give us a call.

“Shoppers, sellers and buyers routinely quote Zestimates to realty agents – and to one another – as gauges of market value,” said the Los Angeles Times. “If a house for sale has a Zestimate of $350,000, a buyer might challenge the sellers’ list price of $425,000. Or a seller might demand to know from potential listing brokers why they say a property should sell for just $595,000 when Zillow has it at $685,000. Disparities like these are daily occurrences and, in the words of one realty agent who posted on the industry blog ActiveRain, they are ‘the bane of my existence.'”

Are faulty Zillow estimates irritating, dangerous, somewhere in the middle? It all depends on your personal situation. A real estate investor, a seller in a high-end neighborhood, or an obsessive real estate watcher (ahem) may be able to brush off a $15,000 error. But for many people across the country, the word of Zillow might as well be the word of God. So, yeah, dangerous.

Price errors

Errors in sales prices are one of the issues Investopedia pointed out in its look at Zillow’s Zestimates.

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“Zillow factors the date and price of the last sale into its estimate, and in some areas, these data make up a big part of the figure. If this information is inaccurate, it can throw off the Zestimate,” they said. “And since comparable sales also affect a home’s Zestimate, a mistake in one home’s sales price record can affect the Zestimates of other homes in the area. The Zestimate also takes into account actual property taxes paid, exceptions to tax assessments and other publicly available property tax data. Tax assessor’s property values can be inaccurate, though. The tax assessor’s database might have a mistake related to a property’s basic information, causing the assessed value to be too high or too low.”

In June, Zillow’s much-maligned (by industry experts, anyway) Zestimates got an upgrade with a new algorithm. Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff has famously called his company’s price estimates, “a good starting point” and copped to a median error rate of approximately 8%. With their new algorithm, they say it’s dropped to 6.1%.

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John Wake, an economist and real estate agent from Real Estate Decoded, applied Zillow’s updated 6.1% margin of error to “Zillow’s own estimate of the median sale price in the U.S. in May 2016 of $229,737 and got a typical error of $14,000. He then took a sample city, Denver – a city in which estimates are actually more accurate than average” – and found “the error spread in 2016 is a lot tighter and more focused on the bullseye of the actual sales price,” but that “their Zestimates are scattershot.”

In his example, “a Denver home has a fair market value of $300,000. According to Zillow’s Zestimate Accuracy Table, 10% of their Zestimate prices were off by more than 20% from the actual sale prices. Half of that 10% are Zestimates that are too high by 20% or more, and half are Zestimates that are too low by 20% or more. That means you have a 5% chance Zillow will give you a Zestimate of $360,000 OR MORE, and a 5% chance Zillow will give you a Zestimate of $240,00 OR LESS. Yikes!”

Missing data

It gets even more complicated without all the data that gets fed into Zillow’s algorithm. Limit the available info and the margin for error grows.

That same email I received included a couple of new listings and info on recent sold homes in the area. Notice anything interesting about these recent sales?

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Yep, no sales prices. Texas is one of about a dozen states without a mandatory price disclosure law, which makes property appraisals challenging and which makes it even more difficult for Zillow to come up with an accurate Zestimate since it eliminates one of their key data points.

In the case of my home, they’re a good $11,000–15,000 high on their sales price estimate. And that’s based on my direct knowledge of sales prices in my neighborhood—not list prices, not tax assessments, and not assumed sales prices based on trends.

Which brings up another issue that leads to inaccurate estimates. In many neighborhoods, sales trends and prices vary street to street. But Zillow’s estimates are a one-size-fits-all program. In my masterplan, the building of high-density units on the southern edge of the community a few years back took a bite out of the value of homes on the perimeter streets. Sales of homes with a first-floor master also get a bump here.

And then there’s the fact that this community is also split between two elementary schools. Zillow wouldn’t know which one buyers prefer and wouldn’t account for a difference in sales price between two otherwise comparable homes. But, people who live here would, and so would the local real estate agents.

Which only reinforces the importance of working with one. Give us a call if you want a more accurate value for your home. 480-213-5251

Low Appraisals Continue To Cause Transaction To Fall Through

Phoenix Home appraisals coming in for lower than the agreed upon selling price of a home is making it difficult for some home buyers to take advantage of the market.

About one-third of real estate professionals say low appraisals have caused a transaction to fall through, be delayed, or have to be re-negotiated, according to National Association of REALTORS® housing data from April.

The main culprit for the disconnect? Many housing experts blame it on appraisers continued use of distressed sales as comparables when conducting valuations.

The low appraisals have caused many borrowers to stay “in a holding pattern for extended periods” because it’s difficult to find comparable sales to support the appraisal value.

Ron Phipps, NAR’s immediate past-president and real estate broker in Warwick, R.I., told The Wall Street Journal that about half of his home sales have had appraisal problems.

To help counter low appraisals, appraisers say it’s perfectly acceptable for borrowers to point out home improvements to an appraiser during the inspection process and to provide comparable sales to justify what they think the valuation should be.

In cases of seemingly lowball appraisals, borrowers can also request an appraisal review from their lender. Some lenders may even grant a request for a second appraisal to be completed if the first one can be shown to be inaccurate based on comparable sales.

In the Phoenix real estate market, values are starting to increase but appraiser continue to be conservative in their valuation by using older sales comparable or using distressed foreclosure sales. This is making transaction fall apart when the property is valued at a higher price than stated by the appraiser. The market is in a transition phase and will take a few months before appraisers start to be less conservative on their valuations.

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More Deals Falling Through Due To Appraisal Issues

Appraisals coming in lower than the agreed-upon sales price continue to cause more real estate deals to be cancelled, recent surveys show.

In December, a third of real estate professionals reported they had a real estate contract fall through, up from 9 percent a year earlier.

The National Association of REALTORS®, along with other housing industry groups, point to low appraisals and rejected mortgage applications from a stringent lending environment as the main forces behind the high number of transaction cancellations in recent months.

Too often, foreclosures sales — which tend to be sold at big discounts — are being weighted into valuations, experts argue.

The National Association of Home Builders’ chairman Bob Nielsen has called the use of distressed and foreclosure sales in comparables in appraisals “inappropriate” and “needlessly driving down home prices.”
Sixty percent of builders say they are seeing problems from appraisals coming in below their contract sales price.

“This is not only unfair and unreasonable, but it perpetuates the cycle of declining home values, drives more home owners underwater, harms local economic activity and acts as an obstacle to the recovery of the housing market,” Nielsen said in a statement in December about appraisals.

But the lending environment also needs to change for the housing market to recover and for fewer deals to stop falling through, housing experts say.

“If we simply return to the normal credit standards, verifying income and looking at the creditworthiness of an individual to stay in a property long term, we think sales will be 15 percent to 20 percent above where they are,” NAR spokesman Walt Molony told Investor’s Business Daily. “There are more people trying to buy homes than are succeeding today.”

How Appraisals Are Derailing Home Sales

Three months ago, real estate agent Gary Rogers says he was conducting a fairly routine home sale. Then he received the home appraisal’s report, which valued the three-bedroom colonial in Waltham, Mass., at $430,000, rather than the $448,000 selling price the buyer and seller had agreed to. Unless the buyer agreed to put up more money, or the seller to lower the price, the deal was off. Fortunately, after nearly two weeks, Rogers says the two sides agreed to meet in the middle.

In the past, appraisals rarely disrupted a home sale. But realtors and housing experts say new requirements and a difficult housing market are doing just that. Year-to-date through September, one third of realtors have said appraisals resulted in buyers and sellers delaying or canceling contracts or renegotiating to a lower sales price, according to the National Association of Realtors. That’s up from 29% in all of 2010 and up from less than 10% prior to 2009.

Indeed, lenders say they’re requiring more thorough home appraisals. Appraisers determine the value of a home largely by reviewing the prices at which similar homes nearby sold for in recent months. During the housing boom, appraisers could cite as few as three recently sold homes; today, lenders are often requiring two to three times that, says David Stevens, president and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association. To meet that quota, appraisers say they sometimes have to use homes that aren’t similar and may be foreclosures or short sales, though they are taking into account what this property would have sold for if it wasn’t a distressed sale, says a spokesman for the Appraisal Institute, an association of real estate appraisers. “Appraisers have become much more cautious,” says Jack McCabe, an independent housing analyst in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

To be sure, a more thorough appraisal process does have its benefits. It lets a buyer know whether they’re offering too much to buy a particular home. “For buyers, the appraisal is a check and balance — it’s there to ensure the buyer isn’t overpaying and the lender isn’t over-lending,” says McCabe.

It may also make houses cheaper for buyers — though not without more hassle. If the appraisal value comes in below the agreed buying price, the lender will typically offer a smaller mortgage. For example, on the house that Rogers sold, the buyer would have gotten a mortgage for $358,400, or 80% of $448,000. But when the appraisal value came in at $430,000, the lender adjusted the mortgage amount to 80% of the appraisal figure, or $344,000. The contract the buyer and the seller had signed, however, stated the higher buying price of $448,000, and the buyer (and potentially the seller) had the option to decide if they wanted to make up the $18,000 difference.

Typical solutions include having the buyer paying that difference out of pocket or the seller lowering his price — or both. And sellers often do lower their prices: For example, during the three months ending September, 13% of realtors reported contracts were renegotiated to a lower sales price, compared to 10% who said contracts were canceled and the 8% who said contracts were delayed, according to the NAR.

Here are ways to make the process easier, say experts, and how to deal with complications.

How sellers can prepare:

Before putting their home on the market, sellers should research what similar homes near them are selling for by looking at online listings, visiting open houses and speaking with realtors, says Rogers. “It’s always good to get more than one opinion,” he says. They can also ask for their own home appraisal, which could give them a sense of how close (or far off) the figures are. The cost of an appraisal varies but typically ranges from $250 to $600.

How buyers can protect themselves:

When buyers make an offer, they should include statements in the contract guaranteeing they’ll receive their initial down payment (typically 3% to 5% of the agreed buying price of the home) back if full mortgage financing doesn’t come through for the agreed price or the appraisal value is below the offer that’s in the contract, says McCabe. Separately, the buyer (who’s required to pay for the home appraisal) should ask for the appraisal report and look at what properties the appraiser used as comparisons, says Rogers. It should, he says, include homes that are in the same neighborhood and the same style. In other words, a colonial home shouldn’t be compared to a ranch.

What to do if appraisal value comes in below the purchase price:

In this situation, experts say buyers have several options. If they’re no longer interested in the home, they can walk away. (However, without a contingency clause — see previous section — they risk losing their initial down payment.) But if they still intend to buy the house and they can prove the report excluded similar, nearby properties or had some other issue, they can appeal or ask their lender for a second appraisal.

If those strategies don’t work, the buyer and the seller can consider working out an agreement on their own. Lastly, to report a problem with an appraiser, consumers can contact their state’s appraisal board.

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