What’s the #1 skill you should acquire as a real estate investor? I would argue it’s learning how to accurately value a property.
“Buy low, sell high” is the core success formula in real estate investing, but in order to buy low, you need to know how to evaluate high.
So, this guide will explain, step by step, how to do a quick and dirty estimate of value for single family or other small residential property. Commercial or larger multifamily properties are not covered here because they require a different process.
Why Not Just Hire an Appraiser or Agent?
You might argue that some appraisers and real estate agents are experts at valuing real estate. Why not just outsource this job to them?
Appraisers and agents ARE a key part of your team. You should certainly depend upon experienced and knowledgeable professionals for help and guidance.
But each and every day, you should be looking at dozens of potential investment deals if you hope to find the best ones. Can you ask an agent or appraiser to evaluate every one of those for you before even making an offer?
No. It’s impractical and too expensive. You need a quick and dirty valuation process of your own.
And even when you do hire an expert, can you afford to completely depend upon someone else for one of the most important calculations of your business? I like to do my own quick and dirty valuation on a property, and then I’ll compare my calculation with the appraiser or agent’s value.
Most of the time, my estimate is similar to the expert’s. But happily, the expert sometimes teaches me new and helpful insights. And every now and then I find the expert is wrong. And as an investor, being wrong hurts because it loses money.
So, this guide is ultimately about asking the right questions. It’s about learning the basics of what experts are doing. And it’s about making and keeping more money as an investor by learning how to think critically for yourself.
Let’s get started!
Quick and Dirty Valuation in 3 Steps
The quick and dirty process of valuation is a shortened version of something called the sales comparison approach (SCA) to real estate valuation. The SCA is a process real estate brokers and appraisers often use to estimate value by comparing and contrasting one property to others.
Investors often buy fixer-upper properties, so this quick and dirty valuation gives a starting point to understand the potential value of a property, which is also called the after repair value (ARV).
For experienced investors with a lot of history in a neighborhood, this quick analysis might be all you need to make a decision. For inexperienced investors or someone new to a location, it might just be the first step before getting help from others.
Here are the 3 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. This is the property that you are trying to estimate a value for.
In my world, the subject is usually an opportunity to make an offer on a property. It may be a property listed on the MLS (Multiple Listing Service), or it may be a seller who contacted me directly from a referral or from one of my marketing campaigns.
Other times, the subject is one of my existing properties. For example, this may happen when I’m considering selling a rental property.
The key to this step is gathering accurate information about your subject. You will be comparing it to other properties in step #3, so you want to have 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/municipality? Inside or outside city limits?
- School district?
- Proximity to attractive amenities (like a lake, ocean, park, cultural center, etc.)?
- Proximity to obnoxious things you can’t change (smells, loud noises, power lines, junky neighbors, dangerous dogs, etc.)?
- Size (acres or square feet)?
- Fenced yard?
- Corner or interior lot?
- On busy road?
- Major slopes?
- Mature or non-existent landscaping?
- Size (square feet)?
- # of bedrooms, baths, garage?
- Type (house, condo, townhouse, etc.)?
- Style (bungalow, ranch, modern, etc.)?
- Year built?
- Finishes (i.e. hardwoods versus cheap vinyl, or granite counters versus laminate)?
Much of the location, lot, and building information will be included on the MLS info sheet from your agent. MLS sheets also usually have helpful photographs so that you can see features with your own eyes. Here’s an example:
If the property is not listed or if some information is missing, you can also search other sources like your local tax assessor, Zillow.com, or a Google search. While Zillow is not as comprehensive as the MLS, it’s very user friendly and can often get the job done.
Here is a screenshot of property information on Zillow.
I also like to see the property myself before estimating a value. No matter how sophisticated online real estate sites become, most house buyers make a decision to buy after they’ve had an in-person, emotional connection with a location and with a house.
So, it pays to replicate that buying decision with boots on the ground as often as possible when you are estimating value as an investor.
When I visit a property, I bring a checklist with me that includes all of the subject property information listed above and more.
I also take as many pictures and videos as possible. Both of these help me to remember everything for later comparison.
Step #2: Gather Information on Comparable Properties
Once you’ve gathered information on the subject property, you can then start searching for and filtering the best comparable properties (a.k.a. comps).
To start, where do you find the comps?
The best source is almost always your MLS through a local real estate agent or appraiser. A professional agent or appraiser will know how to apply filters that you give them to get good comps.
If you are not a real estate agent yourself, you’ll need to get one on your team who is willing to send over comps regularly. If you are using a buyer’s agent for purchases, this would be a reasonable request.
As an aside, lack of access to MLS, especially early in your career, might be motivation enough for you to get your own real estate license. It’s a critical resource as an investor.
If you must do the searching on your own without the MLS, you may still be OK. I often use sites like Zillow.com for quickly pulling sold and active comps. Its maps and search function are very user friendly, and although it may not be as up-to-date or comprehensive as the MLS, it still has a large number of comps you can use for this quick and dirty estimate.
If you’re going the non-MLS route, let me explain the process to pull and filter comps on Zillow.
The first method is to enter the subject property address on the home screen, press continue, and then click “expand” to take the property to full screen:
On the right side of the page, find the list of “Nearby Similar Sales” and click on the link “See sales similar”:
You’ll now see a screen with a map and a list of similar sold comps. Zillow chooses these for you and tells you how each comp is different from your subject.
Using this map, I usually write down 5-10 comps on a section of a deal worksheet that I will use later when I visit the comps in person. The comp section of my worksheet looks like this:
An alternative method to collect comps is to start on the Zillow.com home screen and click “Buy” in on the top menu bar:
You’ll now see a map of your given area, plus filters at the top that let you narrow down your comps. First choose only “Recently Sold” in the Listing Type pull down menu:
Then choose your other filters, like bedrooms, baths, home type, and others in order to narrow your search:
Whatever source you use (the MLS, Zillow, or other online databases), you want a big list of comps (at least 5-10) that meet some basic filtering criteria. You don’t want every property in town, but you also don’t want to filter so tightly that you end up with no comps.
So here are the first filters I use as I collect comps:
- Sold properties: Ideally, I want sales in the last 3-6 months.
- Same 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 (<1 mile). This is where the map function in Zillow comes in handy. Most MLS databases allow you to search by a variety of location filters, like distance from subject, school districts, zip codes, census tracts, cities, and others.
- Same 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, I want to ignore distressed (bank owned, foreclosure, etc.) sales for comparison. I also want to ignore seller financing sales or other sales with unusual seller concessions. Gathering this information is not always obvious, but indications can usually be found in the MLS in the description and in the photos of the property if it’s obviously vacant and needs work.
- Same # of 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 1, 2, and 2.5-bath homes, for example.
Remember, the goal of this step is not to find a comp exactly like your house (that’s almost impossible). Instead, you just want to find a group of comps that share the most common, broad criteria listed above.
Now that you have a list of filtered comps, it’s time to take the list and go visit them in person. Often, I do this on the same trip when I visit the subject property. In both cases, nothing replaces the experience of evaluating the property on the ground just as a buyer would.
If you’re in your car, be sure to slow down, roll down the windows, or even get out and walk the neighborhood. Get a feel for how a user would experience this property and this location. You’ll pick up many more factors in person than you could behind a computer.
If you must stay behind a computer at this stage, take full advantage of Google Maps Street View to tour the neighborhood. But keep in mind that the images may be out of date. The photos from an MLS listing or Zillow will be another important resource for you if you can’t visit in person.
As you look at each comp, take notes on your worksheet. Ask yourself while physically in front of the property if it is better or worse than the subject. And write down why. Be sure to circle or make special note of the 3-4 comps that are most similar to your subject property.
For now, just write down your initial reactions. In step #3, you will use this and other information to get a quick and dirty estimate of value.
Step #3: Compare Comps to Estimate Value
This is the step where all of your previous work comes together.
If this were not a quick and dirty analysis, you would now make some very detailed adjustments. You would estimate the value of each feature of a house (like a garage, a deck, a fireplace, etc.), and you’d add or subtract from the comps to try to compare apples with apples.
A very good explanation of this adjustment process was written by BiggerPockets author J Scott and is available in the BP Fileplace.
But because this is a quick and dirty valuation, you can be a little less precise. If you need it later, you can do a more detailed analysis or get professional opinions.
Your goal with this process is to achieve an upper and a lower limit of value. You want to discover a range within which your subject property will likely fall.
So, look at the information you collected about the subject property (step #1) and your list of comps (step #2). When you drove by the comps, were you able to identify 3-4 properties that were most similar to the subject?
If so, get a scratch piece of paper and make a chart like this:
Your job now is to think like a potential buyer of these houses. You want to “shop” among your choices and decide which are best and which are worst.
To do this, compare your subject property with this short list of 3-5 comps. On each comp, compare all of the location, lot, and property criteria you have available. Then ask yourself this question:
“Is this comp better or worse than my subject?”
Once you make that decision, in the margin of your chart simply put an up arrow next to a comp that’s better, a down arrow next to a comp that’s worse, and a sideways arrow if it’s too close to call. I also like to put a + or – next to the features that make each comp better or worse.
The chart with analysis might look like this:
If you’ve found the right comps that only differ by a few variables, you should be able to make a decision about which comps are better or worse than the subject.
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 than the subject.
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 than the subject.
And if property C sold for $150,000 and the only significant difference is the larger square footage, you might say the comp is better than the subject.
The example above is simplified for ease of explanation, but the point is the same no matter how many comps or criteria you compare. The process is to continually narrow down the window of estimated value of your subject property by choosing better and worse comps.
In the example, I 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 estimate of value could be $135,000-$145,000.
If you are using a fix-and-flip formula to make an offer, you could plug in both ends of your value range to see what number you need to buy at to make your minimum profit.
If you are buying rental properties, you can use this quick and dirty formula to make sure you don’t overpay. You can also build in a discount if that’s part of your rental purchase criteria.
In the end, the entire point of the process was to get you to a rough estimate of 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 3-step process! But before we end, I want to explain something very important about estimating values.
Real estate valuation is always just an educated guess.
Even the best appraiser, broker, or investor in the world can’t perfectly predict the future. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.
We’re taking past market information, and we’re projecting that information into an unpredictable future. Markets can and do change very fast.
We’re also dealing with properties that are completely unique. No two properties or locations are exactly the same. So unlike the stock market, where one share of Coca Cola is exactly like another, we’re always comparing apples to oranges to some extent.
That doesn’t mean the valuation process isn’t important or useful. Both our quick analysis and more detailed valuations are VERY important and EXTREMELY useful.
But just remember as an investor to keep a healthy dose of humility and skepticism when it comes to any value estimates, appraisals, and CMAs from brokers. You can’t let this keep you from taking action, but you can build that healthy skepticism into your psyche and into your business systems.
How do you compensate for this uncertainty and still move forward in your investing?
As I recommended above, use ranges of values instead of exact numbers. Make the bottom number something you are very confident in, and then ensure you can still make an acceptable profit at that lower number.
You might also want to have a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C on your deals. 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 eventually.
You might also want to build 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 to buy below the true value. But the trick with Warren Buffett or with any of us is that true value is illusive. It’s always an estimate. So building a margin of safety helps to compensate for this lack of certainty by giving us some room for human error.
And finally, never forget to HUSTLE on every deal!
If you’re confident of the after repaired value of a flip, then move quickly, get it fixed up, and take it to market fast before things change.
Or even if things go badly, keep hustling. Entrepreneurs always make mistakes, including with their estimates of values. I remember many times where I’ve hustled my way out of mistakes and kept moving forward. You can too.
Conclusion: Go Practice!
The best way to learn anything is to practice. Reading this article is theory. The REAL thing is taking the concept and applying it in the real world.
So, I challenge you to go do some quick and dirty valuation of properties on your own. Use your own residence. Use some leads on new deals.
You could even test yourself by using recently sold houses as your subjects. Don’t look at the sold price yet. Just go through the entire quick and dirty valuation process on each property, and then see how closely you come to the actual sold price.
Valuation is not a skill you can master overnight. Appraisers and brokers take years to become experts at this craft.
But you can become competent with this quick and dirty estimation process. And by applying it strategically and regularly, you can quickly 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 will translate as much as anything else into successful real estate investing.
Good luck with your quick and dirty estimates of value! And good luck with your future 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?
I look forward to having a discussion with you in the comment section below.