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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Who Needs a Home Appraisal When We Have Zillow? (You Do)

Like many homeowners, my husband and I often play a game of what do you think our home is worth. My number is always higher. In matters financial, DC plays it as safe as a blockhouse. The question is moot since we’re not selling our house, but we still play. We occasionally check Zillow. He believes in Zillow. I believe it’s wrong.

“Zillow doesn’t know what improvements we’ve made,” I tell him. “Zillow doesn’t know about the landscaping we put in, the firepit, the fountain, the new roof, the new air-conditioning system, the hardwood floors, the updated light fixtures, the remodeled kitchen and bathroom.”

“No,” he said, “but Zillow assumes we’re maintaining and updating.”

“Oh, it does, does it?”

This past week we tested our assumptions. We were doing some financial planning. I suggested we get a home appraisal, so we could stop guessing. DC agreed that an honest appraisal would be good to have. We both wrote down our numbers.

The day the appraiser came, I was out of town and had to leave the whole matter to DC and the two dogs. (Deduct 10 percent.) Had I been home, I would have had the dogs in play care, and the place sparkling. I would have served warm banana bread and hot tea. I would have waxed glowingly about all the home’s amenities. DC pointed out a few upgrades, then let the appraiser have the run of the place.

When the report came in, I opened the email with one eye closed, as if driving by an auto accident. I text DC. “I just read it,” he said. “I’m pleased.”

“Me, too,” I said. Not only because the appraisal came in 25 percent higher than Zillow’s value, but also because the number I wrote down was right on the dollar. Of course, I rubbed that in. I am small that way.

However, the whole exercise got me thinking about the arbitrary nature of home values, how much we can influence them, the role of real estate websites like Zillow, and Redfin, and when and why we need professional appraisals.

For answers, I called real estate appraiser Richard Allen, of Port Orange, Fla., who has been appraising homes for 45 years, and who was not involved in our appraisal. “Homeowners seek appraisals for many reasons beyond just when they buy, sell or refinance a home,” said Allen, whose grandfather and father were also appraisers, and now his son is, too.

“Some get an appraisal for estate-planning reasons, or, as you did, to do financial planning. We’re also called in for foreclosures, or divorces when couples need to divide assets. Some clients are just curious.”

Naturally, I had more questions, which Allen kindly fielded:

What’s the difference between what you do and Zillow?

Websites like Zillow extract data and spit out a math appraisal based on the original purchase price, known square footage, number of bedrooms, and home sales in the neighborhood. Appraisers rely on the same a hard data, but also incorporate a number of subjective factors.

We put ourselves in the buyers’ shoes and look at what will appeal to them. We analyze buyer and seller movement in the market to determine the price a prudent buyer and a prudent seller would agree to when neither is under duress.

What can homeowners do to increase their home’s appraised value?

Anything a homeowner can to do make their home more current will add value. Kitchens are huge. If your home is 20 years old and still has the original kitchen that could hurt. Next most important are updated bathrooms.

Neglected maintenance will also count against you. Patch cracks, repair wood rot, make sure doors and windows open and close properly. See that heating and air, plumbing, and electrical systems are in good working order, roofs are sound, and water damage on ceilings is addressed.

Curb appeal is also important, as is landscaping. If you’ve made any structural additions, be sure they’re properly permitted.

What affects your home’s value that you can’t change?

Location. If your house looks onto a powerplant or landfill, or is next to a train station or airport, you can’t fix that. You also can’t control what homes in your area sold for, or the size and age of your home.

When working with an appraiser, how can you walk the line between being helpful and annoying?

I love an engaged homeowner. Any data you have, anything you feel is relevant, give it to me. Give me the comparative market analysis from your realtor. Tell me about the benefits of your neighborhood. If you know why a house nearby sold for well under market, point that out. Show me any renovations you’ve made along with the receipts.

But keep it factual. We don’t want to hear your opinion of the market or what you think your home is worth. That’s when you cross the line. Then, leave us alone while we do our inspection. I don’t want the homeowner tied to my belt strap.

Does a home’s interior decor matter?

Appraisers see through personal property. While a well-decorated home will accelerate a sale, furnishings won’t increase market value. And, although a good cleaning and decluttering will help, I’m not focused on your housekeeping. I look past the laundry on the bed for defects and deterioration. That said, if I come into a home that is dirty and uncared for, I am going to look a lot closer because that will plant a seed that the owners aren’t very conscientious.

What if the homeowner disagrees with your appraisal?

If the homeowner disagrees, I am open to their challenge if they have new data. I will always say, show me what I missed. If they come back with viable data, I will do a value reconsideration. Or they can always get another appraisal.

Or go back to Zillow.

CAPTION: Worth the effort — Keeping your home well-maintained and updated are the two best ways to keep your home value up. Photo courtesy of

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