Category: Buying & Selling Homes

5 Pro Tips to Help You Find the Perfect Fixer-Upper

On the hunt for that elusive diamond in the rough? Real estate wizard Randy Florke shares his top tips on buying a fixer-upper.

As founder and president of The Rural Connection, a real estate company based in Upstate New York, Randy Florke has purchased and restored more than 40 old farmhouses, creating gracious and comfortable homes from these diamonds in the rough. When scouting a property, which qualities catch his eye, and what are the red flags that make him walk away? Read on for pro tips on buying a fixer-upper.


1. Location, Location, Location

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Location


“If a house has an amazing location, there’s almost nothing in the way of renovation hurdles that get in my way,” Florke says. “My dream location is all about privacy. I love a house that’s set back from the road. If it’s also got a great view or a water feature, such as a pond or creek—those are both bonus features.”


2. Budget for Renovation Costs

Buying a Fixer Upper - Budget


“When I first tour a house, I’m thinking about what I’d like to change and what needs to be done,” says Florke. “By the time I walk back out the door, I already have a preliminary idea of what the renovation costs might be.” These costs, Florke continues, have to be factored into your overall budget. If you’re unsure about the costs yourself, ask someone you trust to come along and offer you an honest estimate. “It’s essential that you know what you’re getting into.”


3. Focus on Roofing and Foundations

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Roofing


Issues with roofs and foundations often scare off potential buyers, according to Florke, but if you adore the house, ask a contractor to take a closer look. “I’ve bought many houses with both of these issues,” he says. “Provided the cost to fix them properly is within your budget, it could be a great opportunity.”


4. Know Where to Draw the Line

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Wood Rot


Repairable roof and foundation problems aside, Florke would pass on an old home with termites or significant rotting. “If a roof has been left in disrepair for too long, a house will rot from the inside out. That’s not worth an investment.” But don’t rush to dismiss the land on which the tear-down is sitting. “It you’re in love with the location and your budget allows, you can raze the old house and rebuild a new one in a similar style.”


5. Stay Positive

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Stay Positive


If you’ve found an old home you feel is perfect for you but have reason to believe the renovation costs will not realistically fit into your budget, “walk away,” Florke advises. “There will always be another house to fall in love with.”

A Good School District Is Worth How Much?

All homeowners, even those who aren't parents, benefit from living in a good school district.

House Prices and School Districts


You don’t need children to understand that good public schools support the value of homes in their district. And while higher quality schools usually are accompanied by higher property taxes, homeowners in such districts are eventually “paid back” through a higher home sale price.

Getting paid back sounds great, but how much are we talking about? New research from shows that for entry to a desirable school district, 9% of buyers say they would pay 11% to 20% above budget. Separately, 17% report they’d pay extra to be close enough that their kids could walk to and from school.

Related: 7 Renovation Tips to Boost Resale Value

In the showdown between amenities for adults and education for kids, you guessed it: the kids win. found that 62% of buyers would pass up a home spa if it meant getting into the right school district. 50% would concede easy access to shopping, while 44% would give up space in the form of a bonus room.

If the house you plan to sell is located in a highly coveted school district, do everything in your power to highlight that fact in all of your real estate marketing materials. Many potential buyers are the parents of children currently in the school system, so be sure to get the word out among neighbors and local friends.

If you are buying a home, make use of a search tool that enables you to filter by school district, as district boundaries don’t always align with town, village, and city lines. After all, you cannot assume that your children will be assigned to attend the same school as the kids down the block or even next door.

How To: Attract First-Time Home Buyers

Marketing your listing to millennials? As 20-somethings slowly enter the market for the first time, they bring different priorities than did previous generations of home buyers.

How to Attract First-Time Home Buyers


Millennials can’t seem to catch a break. Saddled with student loan debt and facing some tough employment challenges, 20-somethings today are finding it more difficult than previous generations to get a foot into homeownership. In 2013, first-time buyers have accounted for only 28 percent of home purchases, down from 34 percent in 2012. If you’re selling a house with appeal for younger house hunters, here’s how to make it even more enticing:

Show how it lives smart. Millennials are OK with less space, so long as that space is multifunctional and intelligently organized. If possible, show how rooms can be used in different ways. For instance, move a fold-out sofa into the home office to demonstrate its potential as an occasional guest room.

Wire up. Millennials are said to be a mobile group. At home, that mobility takes the form of a wireless internet connection. Include in your marketing materials an explanation of local internet service quality and costs (and of cell phone reception on your property).

Map out commuting routes and alternatives. Bikes, public transit, and car-sharing services like Zipcar are catnip for millennials, enabling them to minimize day-to-day costs and save for monthly housing fees. Create a map that situates the proximity of your house to available transportation amenities.

Introduce them to the community. In today’s erratic and hypercompetitive market, buyers often parachute into unfamiliar neighborhoods, chasing affordability. Provide background on the features and culture of your neighborhood, since harried buyers may not have time to investigate on their own.

Be ready to respond on a moment’s notice. Millennials are likely to pull up in front of your house and review your listing from the screen of a smartphone. If they want to see your place, they want to see it right away. Be ready to show it at a moment’s notice.

Selling Your House? Help Your Neighbors Help You

Perhaps more than you realized, other homeowners in your neighborhood can influence whether or not you achieve the highest possible sale price for your home.

We’ve all heard the real estate maxim, “location, location, location,” but not everyone fully appreciates how neighbors can affect the perception—and indirectly, the value—of a given property. If you’re in the process of selling your home, here’s how to help your neighbors help you:

Neighbors and Home Value


Be Considerate. Let your neighbors know if and when you are planning to host an open house, as their on-street parking or driveway access could be affected. Give them plenty of lead time, so they can plan accordingly. One peace-making idea is to invite your neighbors for a private pre-showing. Who knows? By request or their own election, they might choose to get the word out on your behalf, whether through social media channels or via old-fashioned gossip.

Consult your neighbors before you begin any pre-sale prep work, especially if that work is to be done on your home’s exterior. Try to minimize any negative effect your home improvement might have on those living nearby. Your porch needs some repair? Schedule the carpenter to come midday during the workweek, when your neighbors are least likely to be enjoying their own outdoor living space. As you set out to sell, the last thing you need is fresh resentment emerging.

Slideshow: 7 Renovation Tips to Boost Resale

Be on the Same Page. Potential buyers may poll your neighbors about touchy topics like the local flood history. It’s smart to inform your neighbors about how you are handling such questions. If you have fixed notorious problems known to your neighborhood, take care to bring everyone up to speed on your home’s current condition. Neighbors may need to be reminded of the investment you’ve put into the place, especially if it has a troubled history (e.g., foreclosure).

Share your pricing rationale with neighbors, and if appropriate, reveal the details of your appraisal. After all, even your most entrenched neighbors will sell their respective homes one day, and that means they are likely to be curious. Since your asking price and sale price will be a matter of public record eventually, there’s no advantage to playing coy.

Last but not least—assuming you can find a sensitive way to broach the subject—consider offering to pay for services, such as dog walking or landscaping, that would offset the effect of your neighbors on the appearance of your own property.

How To: Figure Out What Your House Is Worth

Curiosity is not least among the many reasons you might wish to estimate the value of your home. Fortunately, a number of online tools can help you pinpoint what your property is worth today.

Estimate Home Value


If you’re refinancing or selling your home and wish to find its estimated value, a handful of online tools can help you. While it’s true that a lender will only accept the valuation of a formal appraisal, any of the following sources can give you a pretty good idea of what your house is worth today:

• Chase Bank Home Value Estimator allows you to print out a summary, detailing the different factors that decided the estimated value of your home.

• Property Shark valuations include recent asking prices and a very useful FEMA flood zone map.

• A Zillow “Zestimate” relies on a proprietary formula, which combines public and user-submitted data to estimate the current market value of your home.

• RealQuest is the consumer snapshot version of the industrial-strength data crunched by CoreLogic. (A report costs $49.)

As part of estimating your home’s value, Be sure that any market “comparables” you consider are reflective of the very latest information, and that includes pending sales (transactions that are underway but have not yet been finalized).

Until a sale has been closed and registered in the public property records database—a process that can take eight weeks or more—the are only two ways to obtain specifics on pending sales.

One way is through real estate agents, who have access to pending sales data by virtue of membership to multiple listing services. The second way is to seek out your neighbors who in the process of selling and ask them directly. The latter may seem a tad direct, but it’ll all be a matter of public record soon, anyway!

Don’t Let Emotions Cloud Your Real Estate Judgment

Even recognizing that emotions are an unavoidable factor in real estate can help you get what you want out of any house negotiation.

Real Estate Emotions


Real estate agents like to say that house hunters make offers based not on price, but emotions. Recently, Duke University published scientific research that supports the reality of such a phenomenon.

Whether you’re buying or selling a home, even a rudimentary understanding of how the brain synthesizes emotions can help you develop (and stick to) a logic-based valuation of the property in question.

Related: What’s My House Worth?

Let’s say that after 25 happy years, you’re putting the family home on the market. When you look at the place from the curb, you see holiday memories and the hard-won result of your maintenance and remodeling efforts.

Indeed, fond associations may lead you to view the property in more favorable economic terms than it warrants. But you can’t put a price on memories. For a fair assessment of the home’s market value, seek out a third-party appraisal.

Remember also that emotions figure largely in the real estate negotiation process, no matter which side of the table you are sitting on. And in the heat of the transaction, small incentives can deliver outsize impact.

If you are selling, hold back on a small concession, such as a $500 allowance for new carpeting. Once you are close to reaching an agreement, toss that incentive into the mix, as it might help your buyer feel more comfortable accepting the terms.

Conversely, if you are negotiating to buy, carefully monitor your own emotional response to the tactic described above. Don’t let your emotions attach an outsize value to the incentive. Ask yourself whether it’s truly enough to make you agree to the sale price.

Duke researchers found that for human beings, emotions inevitably factor into valuations. The best you can do is to be aware of your own tendency toward irrationality, working around it by focusing on facts.

Clean Credit Wins Home Loans

A first-rate credit history improves the likelihood that your application for a home equity loan will be successful.

Home Loan Credit Score


Mortgage interest rates continue at record lows, but if you’re hoping to snag a home equity loan for a planned renovation, you’ll soon discover that banks consider a different number to be more important: your credit score.

Related: HELOC? HEL, Yes!

Recently, a Federal Reserve official said that most housing-related loans are going to borrowers with a credit score of at least 620. If you’ve ever applied for a Federal Housing Authority (FHA) loan, this probably comes as no surprise, since the FHA requires a sterling credit history even of loan applicants who can offer a substantial down payment.

Home equity line hopefuls are wise to avoid a pointless hassle (not to mention the shock of disappointment) by reviewing their credit in advance of applying.

By law, you are entitled to one free credit report per year. While a credit report includes your aggregate score, it also includes your recent payment history. Here, you may detect black marks that are worth going out of your way to dispute.

Paid credit monitoring services abound. Bypass the shady outfits and instead, opt to deal directly with the major credit reporting agencies: ExperianTransUnion, and Equifax. The higher the score the better.

What if you’ve had credit problems in the recent past? Before using up your one free annual credit score request, gain insight into what you might find with Bankrate’s score estimator. Flag any likely glitches, then assemble the paperwork necessary to either correct or provide context for the issue.

Solving credit headaches can take months. Start now to win the lowest home equity rate for a late summer or fall project.

5 Smart Home Improvements? Think Again!

Before you find yourself saying, "What was I thinking?" see what five home upgrades topped last year's list of loss leaders.

Home Improvements to Avoid - Aquarium

Photo: Landmark Custom Homes

Built-in aquariums: the amenity that quickly becomes an eyesore.

Of all the misfired home improvements that Daniel Fries has observed in his 30 years as a home appraiser, aquariums top his list of 2012 loss leaders—home improvements that offered little to no return on investment.

“It’s not a prudent investment,” deadpans Fries, who is based in Atlanta, GA. The tank’s glass fogs, while grimy filters emit an odor of rotting seaweed. Even worse—yes, it gets worse—some owners repurpose fish aquariums as reptile dwellings. And few things send a potential home buyer fleeing faster than the sight of a bull snake in the dining room.

Aquariums top our list of “improvements” with poor return on investment, but every project on that list has at least one thing in common: a profound mismatch between a homeowner’s intent and a neighborhood’s standards.

Local culture, preferences, and market conditions dictate return on improvements. Sink your money into amenities that don’t reflect the norm for your immediate area and you won’t even gain a 5% premium over neighboring homes, regardless of what you spent, says Kevin Cross, owner of the Anchorage, AK-based real estate agency Cross & Associates.

Case in point: Granite countertops actually undermine market value in Alaska. Extreme temperature changes force constant settling and resettling of home foundations, which results in warping and cracking of solid stone surfaces. Laminate gives just enough to make it the counter material of choice.

“Understand that anyone looking for a house is going to stand in front of yours with their cell phone looking at all the estimated values of the houses all around yours,” he continues. “When a buyer looks at a house, they’re not looking for reasons to buy a house. They’re looking for reasons to not buy yours. Your job is to remove as many of those reasons ‘not to buy’. If it’s priced right, clean, staged and looks inviting, an older house will sell faster than a new house even with superior amenities.”

Buyers pick up on price discrepancies immediately and aren’t willing to pay for misguided improvements… like the rest of the items on our list of top don’ts.

Home Improvements to Avoid - Theater

Loss leader #2: Built-in electronics
Bragging rights last only a few months when it comes to the latest televisions and sound systems. Once the next gizmo lands on the market, today’s shiny toy quickly tarnishes. The value added by splurging for top-of-the-line freestanding electronics may be debatable, but at least you can easily take the gear with you. Built-ins often dominate the entire room and their reverberations can erode the usability of adjoining rooms, too.

The owner of a $3 million house bragged to Fries that his built-in sound system cost $650,000. That was overkill even for a mansion. “He could have spent $50,000 on the media room and gotten just as much value from it,” says Fries. “You have to consider electronics as personal property, even if they are built in.”

Loss leader #3: Eliminating a third or fourth bedroom.
Sure, a walk-in closet and expanded master bath would be a selling point—but only if that space isn’t hijacked from a third or fourth bedroom. If the neighborhood norm is three bedrooms, a two-bedroom house is at a severe disadvantage. The number of bedrooms should be in balance with the common living space. A house with too many or too few bedrooms has a lopsided layout that won’t be useful to many buyers. Still want that master closet? You might be able to justify it if you apply the second cardinal rule of return (keep reading).

Loss leader #4: Overimproving the basement.
Below-grade improvements never pay back as much as space renovated or added above grade. Carefully compare the cost of renovating the attic, adding a dormer or even raising the roof, to a high-end basement remodel. This is especially true for mid-priced houses. High-end houses may well be able to retain the value of a finished basement, but only if all the above-grade space is livable.

Home Improvements to Avoid - Outdoor Kitchen

Loss leader #5: Expansive outdoor living space out of synch with the climate.
Outdoor kitchens with manly grills and wood counters can be used ten months a year in the South, so those projects retain value, says Fries. Not so much in the North, where a fireplace is a cozier investment. Cross reports that water features don’t sell Alaskan houses, considering that they are under four feet of snow for half the year. Especially if you are relocating, settle in to the local lifestyle before creating a sunroom, screened porch, elaborate deck or outdoor kitchen.

Each of these horrors is grounded in the grand misconception of home improvement: if you build it, they will pay. Fries explains that appraisers’ guidelines will force a challenge from the lender if improvements boost the market value of the house more than 10% from its value without the improvement. As you scope out the budget for your project, keep the total tab to no more than 10% of the current value of your house. Spend more only if you count the payback in terms of personal enjoyment.

Use as a reference Remodeling magazine’s annual Cost vs. Value Report. The regional breakouts chart the cost of remodeling, the return, and the difference. The averages are useful for benchmarking estimates and can help you set expectations from the start.

It can be a balancing act to polish to the point of perfect return, especially if you expect to sell the house soon. Consider putting in one moderately priced focal point improvement that can make the room memorable. For example, one—just one—built-in specialty appliance in the kitchen can be a selling point. That appliance might be a warming drawer, or a wine cooler, or a five-burner stove with a griddle instead of the standard four-burner stove. Even then, calculate your payback in terms of a shorter selling time, not in terms of dollar return.

There is an antidote to misfired improvements. Appraisers call it the ‘cost to cure,’ and it’s the second cardinal rule of return. How much will it cost to rip out the offending amenity and make that part of the house look, well, normal?

The cost to cure a derelict aquarium is only about $1,000. The cost to revert a walk-in closet to a bedroom could be as little as $500. But the cost to rip out an algae-clogged, crumbling swimming pool could run ten times that. When in doubt, get two estimates: one to put in the improvement, the other to take it out.

If you must have it, budget time and money for the ‘cure’, and make sure you squeeze every moment of happiness from that feature in the meanwhile.

10 Things to Consider Before Buying a Foreclosed Home

A foreclosed home may be a great way to get a sweet deal on a house—but buyer beware!

Buying a Foreclosed Home

Photo: Flickr

With almost a third of the home sales in this country consisting of properties in some stage of foreclosure last quarter, purchasing a foreclosed home is a great way to pick up a terrific deal on a house. But foreclosed homes that have been abandoned or neglected for months—or even years—often come with hidden costs that can turn that bargain into a money pit. Here, a group of experts offer their top tips on steps to take if you’re in the market for a foreclosed home.

1. Invest in a home inspection. “For about $300-$400 dollars, a home inspector can provide a complete report on the structure, mechanical and major components of the home and property,” says Greg Herb, a licensed realtor and owner of Herb Real Estate in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. Charles Gifford, a licensed home inspector and owner of Amerispec in Jacksonville, Florida, agrees, adding that a home inspection by a properly credentialed home inspector will give you “a better picture of what you are buying and provide you with the framework to prioritize your repairs—or to walk away if it’s too much to handle.”

2. Seek out information on the house’s history. Many states require sellers of real property to complete a Seller’s Property Disclosure Statement (SPDS) as a part of any transaction. “The SPDS typically reveals any known material defects related to the property and provides the buyer with a historical perspective of the home, its maintenance, as well as any repairs or additions performed under the previous ownership,” says Herb. Often, however, these statements have certain exclusions, such as when a home is transferred between a husband and wife or between siblings. Another common exclusion is when a third-party seller, such as a bank or lending institution, owns the property as a result of a foreclosure. “When you purchase a foreclosure property from a bank that’s never been in the home, you lose the historical perspective as a buyer,” says Herb, who adds that a home inspection can help you learn about changes that may have occurred over the life of the property.

3. De-winterize the home. According to Gifford, who is also a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), if you plan to purchase a home that’s been unoccupied for several months, “the first thing you should ask is, ‘Are the utilities turned on?’” In foreclosed homes in many parts of the country, “the water is off, traps are filled with environmentally friendly anti-freeze, and water lines may be pressurized with air or blown out and fully drained,” to keep pipes from freezing and breaking, explains Gifford. Prior to a home inspection, the lines will need to be pressure-checked and energized. And, according to Gifford, you may need a licensed electrician to conduct a safety check on the property’s electricity before power is restored. “Each municipality has its own rules,” he says, “and out-of-town buyers may be required to pay a fee to turn on power and things can get complicated if there are three or four utilities to call before you can get everything operating. A good real estate agent should be able to provide you with referrals.”

4. Check for plumbing problems. The most catastrophic problems in abandoned or foreclosed homes are often caused by broken plumbing pipes or leaks. “Sometimes when you dig beneath the surface of a leaky toilet bowl that’s been shoddily repaired you’ll find that you not only have to replace the lead bend, but also whole floors, floor joists, and drywall that’s rotted or contains mold,” says Matthew Barnett, a licensed home inspector and owner of Brooklyn, New York-based Accurate Building Inspectors. An ASHI member, Barnett says controlling a mold problem can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to $20,000-$30,000 or more to repair and replace whole floors and walls made of plaster or drywall.

5. Investigate mechanical, water-heating, and electrical systems. “In abandoned houses with forced-air systems, dirt and debris and even small animals accumulate in the duct work,” says Barnett, “and if humidity has been around boilers or furnaces for long periods of time, the heat exchangers can corrode and you’ll need to replace them altogether.” This can cost between $3,000-$5,000, he says, depending on the type of system you’ll need. “Some utilities won’t light the pilot light of gas systems if the filters are dirty for fire safety,” adds Andrea Johnson, a Portland, Oregon-based licensed real estate broker and founding member and partner of U.S. REO Partners. This means you’ll need to assume the cleaning expense to test whether they’re operable.

Buying a Foreclosed Home - Signage

Photo: Flickr

6. Look for signs of deferred maintenance. “When owners simply give up and stop taking care of their home, there will be lots of maintenance issues, like the need to clean the gutters, clear debris off the roof, cut back overgrown vegetation, and caulk/seal tile in showers and tubs,” says Gifford, who adds that in certain distressed areas it isn’t uncommon to find that appliances, condensing units, and ceiling fixtures have been removed altogether. According to Barnett, “cheap repairs, like using duct tape or plumber’s putty over a leaking pipe or unprofessional wiring of a fan” can also lead to deeper problems, like mold or fire hazards, which may require costly fixes down the line.

7. Check for foundation cracks, roof, leaks and other exterior damage. “We tend to see it all—bad roofs, structural issues, water damage, and other big-ticket repair items,” says Gifford. “In arid climates, like Texas, the foundations of houses need to be watered or they can crack and ruin the house,” adds Johnson. For a home with a pool, Barnett recommends contacting a pool service to be sure the underground piping and equipment isn’t cracked or clogged. “A normal house inspection will cover the general condition of the pumping and filtering, the patio area, coping stones, and skimmers, but a pool service can try to get the system up and running to see if there’s any significant equipment damage,” he says. If there’s a problem, the owner may give you credit to get it running properly again.

8. Conduct a sewer scope. Especially for homes more than 20 years old, Johnson suggests investing in a sewer inspection. “Lines can be broken by tree roots,” she says, “or they may not be properly connected to public systems.” The lines may also be rotted, clogged, or damaged. A plumbing company can snake a video camera through the line to determine its condition.

9. Resolve any liens. “Many municipalities have regulations regarding the maintenance of properties,” says Herb. “If a bank owns a property, it will generally keep a lawn cutting schedule, but if it fails to do so, the municipality can place a lien on the property if it has to come in and maintain the lawn itself,” he says. “Any number of other liens may have been placed on the property by unpaid contractors, utilities, homeowners associations, and the like,” says Johnson. Prior to closing on a property, you’ll need to make sure all liens are thoroughly investigated by you and a title officer and remedied before title can be conveyed from the previous owner to you.

10. Re-key all the locks. “A lot of houses are on a master key system,” says Johson. “That means countless brokers, contractors, appraisers, and other people could have that key.” If you purchase a foreclosed home, she advises protecting yourself and your property by immediately installing new locks with new keys throughout before you move in.

About the author: Jean Nayar is a licensed real estate agent with Bond New York and the author of several books on decorating and design, including The Happy Home Project (Filipacchi Publishing), which was released this June.

What’s My House Worth?

Read expert tips to calculate a home’s value in a volatile market.

What's My House Worth?


Housing used to be a fairly safe investment — you put your money in and, in a few years when it was time to sell, your house would be worth more than you paid for it. Unfortunately, many sellers are discovering that those gains in home equity they thought they had gained during the boom years are nothing more than wistful memories.

That’s not entirely true for everyone, however: Even in this brutal real estate market, there are still areas where housing prices are holding steady or even increasing.

How can you know where you (and your home) fit in? It’s not an easy answer. Here are six tips for pricing your home correctly in a volatile housing market.

Prepare for a Reality Check
 If you bought your home at the height of the market (or if you cashed out home equity when times were flush), you may be in for the seller’s version of sticker shock. Real estate experts say that even when homeowners recognize that the value of houses all around them has fallen, they often still hold on to outdated ideas about what their own property is worth. If you’re getting ready to sell, it’s time for a serious reality check, says Cincinnati, OH-based real estate appraiser Lou Freeman.

Talk to More than One Realtor
When prices are going down and the volume of sales has slowed to a trickle, it may be time to talk to real estate professionals who work with buyers, at least for the purpose of determining the right price for your home. Working with a Realtor® who has a great record as a seller is usually the best first step.

“It’s so important to hear what buyers are thinking in today’s market,” says Katie Wethman, a certified public accountant and Realtor based in McLean, VA. “Too many agents — especially the ones with the most experience in the business — work primarily with sellers, and they never hear the most common objections of buyers.” Wethman says in this market, sellers might even consider working with someone who is primarily a “buyer’s agent,” or someone who specializes in helping buyers find homes. She says having them help you stage your home and market it may actually help you sell more quickly since they know precisely what feedback they’re getting from people currently looking.

Another reason to shop around is to make sure that you’re working with someone who not only knows the area and the market but is realistic about the current state of sales.

Use Your Comps Correctly
Any real estate expert will tell you one of the most powerful pricing tools anyone has are what’s called “comps,” or comparative listings. These are statistics for recently sold homes similar to yours, usually in location, size and/or amenities. But while any licensed Realtor or appraiser will have access to comps, it’s not always easy to choose the right ones or to read them properly.

First, make sure you’re looking at what has actually sold rather than what people with comparable properties are listing them for. “Too many owners focus on what other people are asking for their homes rather than what they’re actually getting for them,” Wethman says. And when you’re looking selling prices of comparative properties, pay close attention to the date the deal closed. “Even if a comp is just a few months old, you must apply regional trend data: If the market has dropped five percent in the last three months, you need to take that comp from three months ago and apply a greater than five percent drop to that price. Too many people price at the last sale without that extrapolation and they end up chasing the market down.”

“There is a saying in real estate that you can’t be objective about your own home,” Freeman says. “It’s true. When a Realtor tells you that the home you bought six years ago for $303,500 will now only fetch $285,000, you may find it hard to believe.”

Sometimes sellers ignore expert advice because they have a number in mind that they can’t get away from, says Todd Huettner, commercial and residential real estate financing broker. If you can’t get past that number and you don’t have to sell, it’s probably time to just sit on your investment and wait out the current storm. But sellers who have to divest themselves of their property are going to have to face some harsh realities.

“What you paid for your house has nothing to do with its current value,” he says. “What you ‘need to get out of the house’ has no bearing on current value, either.” This fact can be a harsh reality check when you consider you need to receive a certain dollar amount on the sale of your home in order to pay off your current mortgage.

To add to the complication of reading comps correctly, your Realtor needs to know and understand your unique situation. “Not every market is declining,” Wethman says. “Even in declining markets, there are neighborhoods that are doing just fine.”

Consider an Appraisal
If you’re still not feeling confident in your analysis of your home’s value, it’s worthwhile getting an appraisal, say the experts.

“Most homeowners depend on their Realtor to help price their properties, and Realtors usually have a great deal of knowledge about what is and what isn’t selling in any particular neighborhood or at a particular price point,” Freeman says. “But the cost of an estimate by a state licensed or certified appraiser who is familiar with your neighborhood could save you months of extended marketing time and thousands of dollars in carrying costs by helping you price your home correctly from the start.”

Make sure you choose someone who understands not only your area but your purpose in getting the appraisal. You want to choose someone who is willing to talk to you and explain things, says Huettner. “Call three appraisers and tell them what you are doing, and choose the one who is most willing to explain things to you and help you,” he says. “If you are selling your home, $300 to $500 is worth it to have your own independent expert opinion of what your home is worth, and it’s invaluable for educating yourself.”

Be a Nosy Neighbor
Finally, don’t be afraid to be what Realtors like to call “the nosy neighbor.” ”Start going to every open house in your neighborhood to get a feel for pricing vis-à-vis square footage, level of updating and so on,” Freeman says. “Realtors expect nosy neighbors. Don’t disappoint them.” An added benefit of being nosy: If/when the home sells, you will know more about it when you look at the comps.

While it’s important to realize the only number that really matters is the closing price, comparing the list to closing prices of the homes in your area will give you a good barometer for what direction prices are heading and how long you can expect to wait to find a buyer. “Drive around your neighborhood or go online to or other similar sites and view recently sold homes and listed homes,” Huettner says. “Just remember: Only closed sale prices matter.”

It can be tough to come to accept your home’s value in a declining or volatile market, Huettner says, but it’s better to deal with it when putting your house on the market than letting it languish for months if the price is too high. “You will eventually find out the market value of your home,” he says. “Don’t wait for the market to show you when you finally sell. It costs so much more that way.”

Online Home Price Evaluation Tools
Real estate pricing experts say one easy first step for people considering selling, or just wondering about their equity, is visiting online home price tools. While you shouldn’t put too much emphasis on these prices, they may be good starting points. Here are some online tools that can help you figure the value of your home:

  • Zillow allows you to plug in your home’s address to find recently sold properties on a map of your area. You can also check the prices of recent listings in your neighborhood, as well.
  • Trulia shows listings, price reductions, and even a “real estate heat map” of average list prices of homes in your area. The downside: It shows listing prices, not selling prices.
  • Domania, a website from Lending Tree, offers a “Home Price Check” section where you can type in an address and find out the selling price of a house sold within the past five years.
  • Local Real Estate Web Sites: Some large Real Estate groups may compile a listing of the recently sold properties in their area. One example is Crye-Leike in Tennessee; its website allows you to plug in the address for a specific property to find out what it sold for.