What’s the number one skill all real estate investors need? How to accurately estimate after repair value.
Knowing the actual value of a property is essential, no matter whether you’re a buy and hold investor keen on turnkey properties or a fix and flipper looking for homes in need of serious work. “Buy low, sell high” is real estate’s core success formula—but in order to buy low, you need to know how to evaluate high.
Here’s how to do a quick and dirty value estimate for single-family or other small residential property. (Commercial or larger multifamily properties are not covered here because they require a different process.)
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Why Not Just Hire an Appraiser or Agent?
Appraisers and real estate agents are experts at valuing real estate. Why not outsource this job? After all, they’re a key part of your team. You should certainly depend upon experienced and knowledgeable professionals for help and guidance.
But smart investors look at dozens of potential deals every day. Can you ask an agent or appraiser to evaluate every property before even making an offer?
No. It’s impractical and expensive. You need your own quick-and-dirty valuation process. And even when you do hire an expert, why completely depend upon someone else for one of your most important business calculations? I do my own valuations and then compare that with the appraiser or agent’s value.
Most of the time, my estimate is similar to the expert’s. But happily, the expert sometimes offers helpful insights—and occasionally I find the expert is wrong. Being wrong hurts because it loses money.
3 Steps to a Quick and Dirty ARV
My quick-and-dirty process is a shortened version of something called the sales comparison approach (SCA). Real estate brokers and appraisers use the SCA to estimate market value by comparing and contrasting multiple properties.
Investors often buy fixer-uppers, so this valuation helps you understand a property’s potential value—also called the after repair value (ARV). For experienced investors who know a neighborhood intimately, this quick analysis might be all you need. For inexperienced investors or someone new to a location, calculating ARV might just be the first step before getting help from others.
Here are the three steps:
- Gather information on the subject property.
- Gather information on comparable properties.
- Compare comps and subject in order to estimate value.
I’ll unpack and explain each in the next sections.
Step 1: Gather information on the subject property
The valuation process begins with the subject property—the one you want to estimate a value for. It may be a property listed on the MLS (multiple listing service), or one from a seller who contacted me directly from a referral or one of my marketing campaigns.
Other times, the subject is one of my existing properties, such as a rental I’m considering selling.
Start with accurate information. You will be comparing it to other properties in step three, so you need a good basis for comparison.
Here is a list of some information you will want to gather, although it’s by no means all-inclusive. I’ve separated them into broad categories to make them easier to remember.
- City or municipality—and is it inside or outside city limits?
- School district
- Proximity to attractive amenities (like a lake, ocean, restaurants, park, or cultural center)
- Proximity to negatives you can’t change (smells, loud noises, power lines, junky neighbors, or dangerous dogs)
- Size (acres or square feet)
- Fenced yard
- Corner or interior lot
- Road traffic
- Major slopes
- Landscaping—is it mature or nonexistent?
- Size (square feet)
- Number of bedrooms and baths
- Type (house, condo, townhouse, etc.)
- Style (bungalow, ranch, modern, etc.)
- Year built
- Finishes—are there hardwoods or cheap vinyl? Granite counters or laminate?
Much of the location, lot, and building information will be included on the MLS info sheet, which you can receive from your agent. If the property is unlisted or the MLS listing excludes vital information, look elsewhere. You can find details at your local tax assessor’s website or office, listing sites like Zillow, or via a Google search.
If possible, see the property yourself before estimating a value. No matter the sophistication of online real estate sites, most house buyers make a decision to buy after they’ve had an in-person, emotional connection. It pays to replicate that buying decision with boots on the ground as often as possible.
Bring a checklist that includes all of the subject property information listed above—and take as many pictures and videos as possible.
Step 2: Gather information on comparable properties
Once you’ve gathered the necessary subject property information, start searching for the best comparable properties (aka “comps”).
But where do you find them?
The best source is almost always your MLS. A professional agent or appraiser can choose filters that pull the best comps. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to hire an excellent real estate agent—you need one who can send over comps regularly. If you are using a buyer’s agent for purchases, this is a reasonable request.
If you don’t have an agent and can’t access the MLS, you may still be OK. Sites like Zillow and Redfin are thorough enough to help quickly pull sold and active comps.
Here’s what you’re looking for.
- Recent sales: Ideally, in the last three to six months.
- Similar location: For suburban properties, this often means the same neighborhood. For urban or in-town properties, it might be the same block or district. For rural properties, it might be a certain distance from the subject—likely less than one mile.
- Size: Square footage should be within 15-20% of the subject.
- Non-distressed, traditional sales: Unless most sales in the market are distressed or investor purchases, ignore distressed sales for comparison—this means bank-owned properties and foreclosure. Also ignore seller financing sales or other sales with unusual seller concessions. This information isn’t always obvious, but reviewing the MLS description and photos carefully can indicate if it’s clearly vacant or needs serious work.
- Bedrooms and baths: Sometimes you can fudge on these criteria—particularly the number of bathrooms. If you’ve used the first four filters and you don’t have enough comps, it might be OK to include one, two, and two-and-a-half-bath homes, for example.
The goal of this step isn’t to find an identical comp—that’s almost impossible. Instead, you want to find a group of comps that share the most common, broad criteria listed above.
Create a spreadsheet with five to 10 potential comps. Make sure to include:
- Asking price
- Purchase price
- Square footage
- Date sold
- Notes, like days on market and condition
Now it’s time to visit them in person. If you’re doing a drive-by, be sure to slow down and roll down the windows. Walk the neighborhood. How would a buyer experience this property and this location?
If you must stay behind a computer at this stage, use Google Maps Street View to tour the neighborhood. Just keep in mind that the images may be out of date. Listing photos are another important resource if you can’t visit in person.
As you look at each comp, take notes. What are your initial reactions? Is it better or worse than your subject? Why? Circle the best three or four comps.
Side note for fix and flip investors: When calculating ARV, it can be useful to calculate a property’s current value—while it’s in need of serious rehab—and what the property will likely be worth after renovations. Plug this into your 70 percent rule calculations to determine a maximum allowable offer.
Step 3: Compare comps to estimate the value of the property
Here’s where all your previous work comes together.
If this weren’t a quick-and-dirty analysis, you would make some detailed adjustments. You would estimate the value of each feature of a house (like a garage, a deck, or a fireplace) and add or subtract from the comps to compare apples to apples.
But this is a quick-and-dirty valuation, so you can be a little less precise. Your goal is to achieve an upper and a lower value limit—the range in which your subject property might fall.
Think like a potential buyer. You want to “shop” your comp choices to decide which are the best.
To do this, compare your subject property with your short list. Look at the location, lot, and property information, and ask yourself, “Is this comp better or worse than my subject?”
Once you make that decision, add a column to your spreadsheet. Note comps that are better, worse, or too close to call. You also might want to note the specific features that make each comp better or worse. For example:
- If property A sold for $130,000 but its only significant difference was one less bathroom, you might say the comp is worse.
- And if property B sold for $120,000 and the only significant difference was its poor condition, you might also say the comp is worse.
- But if property C sold for $150,000 and the only significant difference is the larger square footage, you might say the comp is better.
You could say with some confidence that the subject is worth more than $130,000 and less than $150,000. So a reasonable quick-and-dirty ARV estimate would fall between $135,000 and $145,000.
If you are using a fix and flip formula, plug in both ends of your value range to see what number you need to buy at to make your minimum profit. And if you’re buying rental properties, use this calculation to ensure you don’t overpay.
In the end, this process found you a rough value more quickly and less expensively than alternative valuation methods. It will be your job to figure out how and when to use it in your investing business.
It’s All Guesswork (But That’s OK)
You’ve made it through the three-step process! But before we end, I want to explain something very important: Real estate valuation is always just an educated guess. Even the best appraiser, broker, or investor can’t predict the future.
And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. We’re projecting past market information into an unpredictable future. Markets can and do change very fast.
We’re also dealing with unique properties. Like fingerprints, no two deals are exactly the same. Unlike the stock market, where one share of Coca-Cola is exactly like another, we’re comparing apples to oranges.
As an investor, keep a healthy dose of skepticism when reviewing value estimates, appraisals, and CMAs. Don’t let this keep you from taking action—but build that healthy skepticism into your psyche and business systems.
Compensating for uncertainty
Use ranges of values instead of exact numbers. Make the bottom number something you are very confident in—and ensure you can make an acceptable profit at that lower number.
Keep a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C in your back pocket. If you can’t get your price, can you sell lower, cut your losses, and move on? Can you rent the property and wait patiently until the market gives you your price?
If Plan A (the optimistic, rosy picture) is the only way you can survive, you’ll get into trouble.
Consider building a margin of safety into every deal. Warren Buffett’s mentor Benjamin Graham wrote in his excellent book The Intelligent Investor, “If you were to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto, MARGIN OF SAFETY.”
A margin of safety in real estate means buying below the true value. But the trick with Warren Buffett—or with any of us—is that “true value” is illusive. It’s an estimate. A margin of safety compensates for this lack of certainty by providing room for human error.
If you’re confident of a flip’s ARV, then move quickly, fix it up, and take it to market quickly.
And even if things go badly, keep hustling. Entrepreneurs always make mistakes—including estimating values. I’ve hustled my way out of mistakes and kept moving forward. You can, too.
Get real-world practice
Reading this article is theory. The real thing you need? Applying this concept in the real world.
I challenge you to go do some quick-and-dirty property valuations. Use your own residence. Use some new leads. Test yourself by using recently sold houses as your subjects—don’t even look at the sold price (yet). Go through the entire valuation process on each property, and see how close you come to the actual sold price.
Valuation is not a skill you can master overnight. Expertise takes years—but you can become quickly competent. By applying it strategically and regularly, you can become a value expert in a very small slice of your overall market. You can become the person who knows more about your niche than anyone else.
And that niche expertise translates into successful real estate investing.
- Do you have a quick and dirty valuation process that you use?
- What steps do you take?
- How do you get confident in the values of the properties you will buy?
Let’s discuss in the comment section below.
Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.