What’s the Difference Between a Comparative Market Analysis and an Appraisal?

Before you buy or sell a house, it’s important to know its market value. As a buyer, you want to pay as little as possible, while still putting in a winning offer. As a seller, you want to maximize the sales price. So how do these two parties ever come to an agreement? Through the use of comparative market analyses (CMAs) and appraisals.

If you’re a seller, you will invariably ask the question, “What’s my house worth?” To which your Realtor should reply, “Let’s look at the CMA I’ve done for your property.” Realtors depend on a database of properties for their market research. The database includes properties of all descriptions that have recently been put up for sale and either sold, remained on the market, or been removed from the market without selling. Your Realtor uses that database to search for properties similar to yours in terms of age, condition, size, style, and location.

In preparing a CMA, your Realtor will review properties that sold, and see how long they were on the market; properties that still haven’t sold, but have remained on the market and may have had price reductions; and properties that never sold and eventually were pulled off the market. Each of these situations provides valuable information about how your property fits into the housing market. The houses that remain on the market are the most interesting to your Realtor, since those are the properties with which your house will compete for the ready, willing, and able buyers. Realtors create CMAs as one of the many services they provide to clients, or even as a way to demonstrate their value to prospective clients. There’s no specific fee for a CMA.

An appraisal, on the other hand, includes similar data but is usually done by a certified or licensed appraiser with hundreds of hours of training and expertise, and most importantly, with no financial stake in the transaction at hand. Lenders depend on this expertise and objectivity to determine the fair market value of a property upon which they make lending decisions. An appraisal is the highest price at which a property is likely to be sold from a willing seller to a willing buyer who both have all the material facts. The cost of an appraisal varies widely from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars (or even tens of thousands of dollars).

Depending on the type of loan and type of property, a lender usually chooses to loan between 50 percent and 100 percent of the appraised value. If you are buying raw land, you can expect closer to 50 percent. If you are buying a commercial property with the first deed of trust, you can expect about 60 percent. If you are buying an owner-occupied, single-family house, you can expect between 75 and 100 percent.

Lenders are not the only ones to use the appraised value. Buyers can use it to negotiate the sales price. In fact, I have a Realtor in my office right now involved in a transaction where the property value is highly subject to opinion. We have sent the seller a letter of intent noting that the buyer is willing to enter into a purchase agreement for whatever the appraised value turns out to be. This particular property will be extremely difficult to appraise and the appraisal will therefore probably cost tens of thousands of dollars. However, with a buyer ready to commit to purchasing the property, the seller may decide the cost of the appraisal is worthwhile.

Neither CMAs nor appraisals are based on exact science. They are both opinions of value, albeit from well-educated sources. Usually, the final sales price falls within 3-5 percent of the appraised value. Now and then a unique property breaks that rule.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at rselzer@selzerrealty.com or call (707) 462-4000. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at www.richardselzer.com. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.


What NOT To Do When Putting Your House on the Market

I’ve written several columns reviewing what to do when you decide to sell your house, but it occurred to me that I might not have shared what NOT to do. Here are four recommendations to help you avoid expensive mistakes.

  1. Don’t Over-improve

As you contemplate putting your house on the market, think carefully before you take on major renovations. Some improvements are cost-effective and will yield a decent return (you’ll be able to increase the sale price to cover your construction costs and hopefully make a profit); others will not. Be mindful of what potential buyers would be willing to pay for if the house belonged to them. Let that guide your decisions about which improvements to undertake. You should complete needed repairs—if something’s broken, fix it. Go ahead and take care of deferred maintenance—if you need a new roof, now’s a good time. Definitely address pest and/or fungus problems—if you don’t take care of the termites, the new owner will have to.

A mistake I sometimes see occurs when a seller renovates to the point where his or her house no longer fits with its surroundings. In a neighborhood of 2000 square foot homes, don’t add 1500 square feet to make yours a 3500 square foot monstrosity. People looking for big homes want to live in neighborhoods where everyone has big homes. Would your house be as valuable if it were moved to an inner city neighborhood full of housing projects? Nope. While that’s a more dramatic example, the same principle applies to overbuilding in a middle class neighborhood.

Another mistake I see is the choice to convert a garage into a family room. Most Realtors will tell you, the increased value from the additional square footage in the new family room is almost exactly offset by the loss of the garage. It’s a wash. And when you add in the cost of the renovation, it’s a loser.

  1. Don’t Over-decorate

Décor is a personal thing, and it’s highly unlikely that you and the future owner of your property will agree on every style choice. (Most of us can’t even agree with our spouses on paint color.) So when it comes to the décor of a house you plan to sell, neutrals are best. While you may love your daughter’s pink walls and the green shag carpet that looks like the grassy meadow from a storybook, the prospective buyer with three sons is unlikely to be thrilled with these choices. Less is more. If you want to add a splash of color, buy fresh flowers and put them in vases around the house.


  1. Don’t Hang Around

Whether your Realtor is hosting an open house or bringing an interested buyer for a tour, your job is to be somewhere else (and take Fido with you). I know it’s tempting to stick around and answer questions about your house and the neighborhood. After all, who knows this information better than you? But trust me, you should leave and let your Realtor do their job. Buyers rarely feel comfortable expressing concerns about the house with the owner present. Instead, they will keep quiet and simply move on to the next house.


  1. Don’t Take Things Personally

When your Realtor relays questions from potential buyers, try to keep your emotions in check. When buyers ask for a credit so they can redecorate the princess room you spent years perfecting, try not to be offended. When they come in at a price that seems ridiculously low, recognize that they are simply doing their job: trying to get the lowest price possible. You have three potential responses to an offer: accept it, counter it, or reject it. An outright rejection is foolish. Counter the parts of the offer you don’t like and see where it goes from there.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at rselzer@selzerrealty.com or call (707) 462-4000. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at www.richardselzer.com. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.


Prepayment Penalties – The Double Whammy

You may have heard you can save a bundle of money by paying off your mortgage early. Have you ever asked yourself, “If I’m saving money, who is losing money?” Well, the answer is: your lender. Sometimes, especially with big commercial properties, lenders protect themselves against early payoffs by including pre-payment penalty clauses in their loan agreements.

Many lenders insist on pre-payment penalties to ensure their continued yield over a period of time. This allows them to cover their expenses, since their up-front fees to arrange the loan do not always cover the cost of doing the work. I’m sure you’ve seen the ads promising, “Refinance with us and we’ll pick up all the costs!” In some cases, that means lenders not only pay the title and escrow fees (and related transaction costs), they also pay the loan origination fees, which can add up to 1-2 percent or more of the loan amount.

If that loan is paid off in the first year (instead of over the course of 15 years), the lender will have suffered a significant loss. A friend of mine who does private party, owner occupied loans argues vehemently that his cost to put one new loan on the books is about $7500; and that doesn’t include the escrow costs, title insurance, or the drawing and recording of documents. In those situations, he’s not allowed to charge a pre-payment penalty. Consequently, he either charges an up-front fee to cover his costs or he assesses the situation carefully so he can be confident the loan will stay on the books long enough for him to recoup his costs.

Pre-payment penalties can take many forms. Typically, they are calculated based on some time frame for which the buyer is required to pay interest. If the loan is paid down or paid off early, the lender charges the penalties. In many cases, the lender will only accept a full pay off the loan if the payment includes the remaining principal plus 4-6 months’ worth of interest.

Most lenders hide pre-payment penalty details in plain sight. All pre-payment penalties must be clearly outlined in the loan agreement, but reading through the verbiage and understanding it might require a law degree and a finance background, especially if you want to negotiate on this point.

Although I said “plain sight,” many of the people who read the pre-payment penalty clause don’t know what they’re looking for. It may be referred to as a “yield maintenance provision” or similar title. And like I said, even if you know you should be paying attention, this stuff is dry; I call it bedtime reading (that is, if you’re trying to fall asleep).

The short story of yield maintenance provisions is this: the lender wants to be sure their investment is protected and their long-term yields will be realized. So if your 30-year loan was written at 8 percent ten years ago and you want to refinance it today at 5 percent, the lender will require a penalty of 3 percent of the loan amount times 20 years. Most of us will never experience a yield maintenance provision pre-payment penalty as they are fairly exclusive to very large commercial loans. However, this is the prime example of why it is so important to READ YOUR LOAN DOCUMENTS.

Pre-payment penalties are a negotiable item and many times a lender will be willing to forego (or reduce) a pre-payment penalty in return for a higher interest rate, a lower loan-to-value ratio, or a higher up-front fee. But if you don’t read your loan documents, you won’t know about the penalties. If you don’t know about the penalties, you won’t know you need to negotiate.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at rselzer@selzerrealty.com or call (707) 462-4000. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at www.richardselzer.com. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.


Marijuana’s Legal Status in California and What Happens Now

Opinions about marijuana are all over the map in Mendocino County, and people can get pretty fired up about their respective positions. Whether you’re pro or con, whether you think legalizing marijuana will help or hurt the local economy, whether you think people who smoke a single joint are drug addicts or no different from an occasional wine drinker, the simple fact is: cannabis will soon be legal to use, possess and share (as well as grow at home) in California.

By a margin of about 56 percent to 44 percent, voters passed Proposition 64 last November, making California the fifth state to legalize recreational pot, after Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. And the State of California is leaving it up to local jurisdictions to sort out some of the details around cultivation, processing, distribution, and sale. Humboldt County to our north has been proactive and has already put regulations in place.

While state and local governments sort out regulatory details, we still don’t know what Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to do about enforcing federal anti-drug laws that run counter to state and local ordinances. He’s clearly not a marijuana fan.

In my opinion, the legalization of marijuana is going to have a significant impact on the real estate industry, particularly in Northern California. As it becomes a more readily accepted agricultural crop, and more areas allow cultivation, there will be more volume grown and more tonnage available. A simple supply and demand curve tells us that as supply increases, price decreases.

There are tremendous variables in all this. We don’t know if more people will consume marijuana because it is legal. And although it is hard to imagine marijuana be any easier to get in Mendocino County, for people in other parts of the state, it likely will be easier to find and purchase. Another significant issue, which is difficult or impossible to quantify at this point, is whether Mendocino County will be able to charge a premium for cannabis grown here versus the Sacramento Valley.

My concern from a strictly economic position is that as cultivation picks up in other areas, the increase in supply will force local prices down. Depending on the quantity of production and the price drop, our county could see far less money circulating in our economy.

Of course, not all money generated by the illegal marijuana industry contributes to the local economy. Some marijuana is taken to the Bay Area and traded for hard drugs. Some proceeds from marijuana sales are literally boxed up and sent out of the country. But locals who profit from the marijuana trade do spend money eating in local restaurants and buying local products and services, and the truth is that if the price of marijuana plummets, it will have a noticeable impact on local retail sales (and the associated tax revenue). A dramatic drop in the price of marijuana will probably lead to a dramatic drop in the price of 40-acre parcels with southern exposure and ample water at the end of a dead-end roads all across the county.

If government regulation (either through taxation or other restrictions) limits supply or increases the cost of marijuana, then that will impact its ultimate retail price. If those taxes and/or restrictions are high enough, then producers, distributors, and processors will remain on the black market and continue to get a price that exceeds what I’ll call the “retail commercial production” price—the price that results from following the rules.

While Mendocino County will probably be able to charge a premium for its high quality product, the Sacramento Valley’s production will still eat into local revenue.

This whole thing boils down to two points: the price of current marijuana land will decline and government revenues will probably follow suit. Our local governments need to consider this at budget time.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at rselzer@selzerrealty.com or call (707) 462-4000. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at www.richardselzer.com. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.


Do We Have a Water Shortage or a Shortage of Water Storage? 

I debated about tackling this issue because water rights are a little like politics or religion around here: if you want to remain on good terms with friends and family, don’t discuss them. However, I’m not one to shrink away from an important topic, so while I expect many knowledgeable people to hold differing opinions, I hope we can agree to disagree.

When it comes to water, most folks immediately think of California’s drought and our local water shortage. I agree we’re in a drought, but I’d argue we have plenty of water—if only we’d hold onto it. Our real problem is that we have a severe water storage shortage, a problem not easily solved.

There are significant challenges in locating a potential storage site, from property ownership to geography to the watershed. Even if all those issues were easy to resolve, you’d have to overcome the enormous cost of constructing a storage facility (and complying with the state and federal regulations that accompany such construction). Let’s say you had infinite financial resources, those still wouldn’t resolve the legal, ethical, political, and environmental issues of rerouting or damming the water.

Are you beginning to see the incredible dilemma we have here?

In the United States in the past decade, more dams have been decommissioned than built, even though the demand for water for residential, industrial, and agricultural uses continues to increase. Like most environmental issues, it’s a trade-off. No one likes to see a wild river “tamed,” but without more water storage capacity we suffer the effects of drought.

This is an issue which, right or wrong, gets decided at a political level. While water rights are similar to property rights in many ways, they are also profoundly different. The obvious major difference is this: water that flows through your property, either above ground in a year-round stream or below ground in an aquifer, doesn’t originate on your property and it doesn’t end there, either. Add to that the potential for a single property owner to contaminate the water with commercial or industrial pollutants (or a malfunctioning septic system), and the topic of who owns the water and who’s responsible for its quality and/or cleanup becomes almost impossible to solve without the cooperation of all parties.

Locally, a partial solution may be to combine multiple water districts into one. In the past, disagreements among water districts have been counterproductive for our valley as a whole. On the bright side, those agencies currently appear to be working together for the most part. I still believe consolidation would have significant benefits for most people living in the Ukiah Valley.

Since there is no overlap among districts, and therefore no competition, we have several small monopolies: Willow County Water District, Millview County Water District, Russian River Flood Control District, and the City of Ukiah. If they blended into fewer districts or just one big district, they would at least benefit from economies of scale. And right now when one agency has a surplus and another has a shortage, they have to negotiate. With a single agency, the problem would not come up; the large agency would move water from the surplus area to the shortage area.

If we wanted to gain additional efficiencies, we could blend the water districts with the sanitation district, reducing duplication of equipment, services and leadership. Several executive directors are reaching retirement age. Maybe now is the time to take a closer look at consolidation. If you agree and you happen to know any of the decision makers in these organizations, consider sharing your opinion.

If we really want to tackle water shortages in California, we have to talk about agriculture, since 80 percent of human water usage goes toward ag, but if you think I’m willing to tackle that issue in this valley, you’re crazy.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at rselzer@selzerrealty.com or call (707) 462-4000. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at www.richardselzer.com. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.