Calculating your home's value online

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Checking the estimated value of your home these days is a bit like following stock quotes.

That's mainly because many homeowners have come to see their property's price as a kind of stock, giving them equity they might use to buy a nicer place, pay for repairs -- or to feel rich.

To follow the possible changes in the value of their homes, more homeowners are turning to free or nominally priced online tools that spit out a probable home value. Unlike a stock with a daily closing price, a home's value is colored by several variables: neighborhood, the home's condition, the regional housing market, and an agent's or home buyer's rose-colored glasses.

To find out how good such Web sites are at generating consistent numbers, we pulled up estimates on one home in Seattle, a 1918 Craftsman purchased for $230,000 in February 2004. We weren't looking to sell, but wanted to see estimates for a couple of reasons. We wanted to take out a home-equity loan and also wondered how Seattle's booming real-estate market, along with economic development in the area (a new Home Depot, a new arts center, and park upgrades), affected the home's value.

After getting five estimates -- four from online sites, and one from a professional appraiser who inspected the home in person. We were told the home might sell for anywhere from $291,000 to $375,000 -- an $84,000, or 29 percent, spread.

The price range didn't inspire confidence. It appears that part of the problem is that some Web sites we used, including www.instanthomevaluations.com and HouseValues.com, provide only a broad price range and demand real-estate agent contact for a more specific figure. This seems like a tool for agents to build prospect lists, and most likely contributed to the broad price span.

We found that it it's not only hard to get an instant, single quote from sites that advertise free figures, but it's also hard to do so without providing personal information such as phone numbers and e-mail addresses and agreeing to agent solicitations. Agents pay sites for leads (i.e, your information) and then calculate a home value as a carrot to get your business. Two sites -- www.zillow.com and www.realestateabc.com -- solved that problem by offering a price estimate for any address, without asking us to identify ourselves. (Zillow.com is a Seattle startup launched earlier this year by former executives from the travel site Expedia.com.)

We did use one free agent-driven site, HouseValues.com, since agents will email a preliminary price quote without requiring an in-home visit. The HouseValues.com agent emailed only a broad value range: $320,000 to $375,000. His note essentially indicated that to get a specific figure we'd have to allow for a visit. (And hopefully we'd consider hiring him if we put our house on the market.) In the meantime, he put us on a generic e-mail list to solicit business.

Avoiding other agent-driven sites left only a handful of options, so we worked with the free sites Realestateabc.com and Zillow.com, then paid $9.95 for a quote from Instanthomevaluations.com, which generated specifc figures instantly. Realestateabc.com and Zillow.com provided both lists of comparable homes and specific numbers -- $316,000 and $325,087, respectively. Instanthomevaluations.com, which says it uses the same data available to banks and lending organizations, provided only a range of values -- $291,000 to $343,000 -- as well as three comparable homes, and required $9.95 for the figures. (For even more money, the site promises more detail and more comparisons.) To get a more exact figure from Instanthomevaluations.com, we'd need to agree to contact from a real-estate agent.

Offline, we hired Richard Hagar, an appraiser with American Home Appraisals of Mercer Island, Wash., to price the home. He calculated different numbers based on a "desktop" appraisal (using local real estate and other computerized data), a drive-by, and an extensive on-site appraisal. The desk-top appraisal said the home would be worth $400,000, but the drive-by and on-site visit lowered it significantly, to the $305,000 to $320,000 ballpark, which Mr. Hagar said would be the most accurate for our purposes.

Mr. Hagar acknowledged that the on-site visit gives an appraiser opportunities for subjective calls: For example, a low ceiling might discount the basement's value, but the carpeting and finished walls offset that negative, in the appraiser's opinion.


SERVICE PROVIDER: American Home Appraisals
RESULT: $305,000 to $320,000 (after an in-house visit); $400,000 (a "desk top" analysis only)
COST: $600 (for in-house analysis, drive-by analysis, and desktop calculation)
FEATURES: Report gives commentary on home's condition, photos and comparable properties.
COMMENT: Appraisers make some subjective calls in determining home value. Generally, appraisal assessments are conservative.

SERVICE PROVIDER: Instanthome valuations.com
RESULT: $291,000 to $343,000
COST: $9.95, $14.95, or $29.95, depending on how much information is desired
FEATURES: The site generates an instant home value range and offers multiple comparables in an easy-to-read report format.
COMMENT: The $9.95 report offered a nice presentation, but only gave a price range and not a specific number that is free elsewhere.

SERVICE PROVIDER: HouseValues.com
RESULT: $320,000 to $375,000
COST: Free
FEATURES: Site connects you to a real estate agent, who then develops a price for the home and e-mails it with comparables.
COMMENT: The online-only quote was uselessly broad. An on-site visit with an agent would be required for a clearer number.

SERVICE PROVIDER: Realestateabc.com
RESULT: $316,000
COST: Free
FEATURES: Plug in details on an address to get an instant quote, plus data on 30 comparable sales.
COMMENT: The "housing market" tool -- rating how fast homes are selling in a given area -- is clever. Some comparables were too dated .

SERVICE PROVIDER: Zillow.com
RESULT: $325,087 (derived from a value range of $279,575 to $357,596)
COST: Free
FEATURES: Enter information to get an instant quote, plus aerial maps, 10 comparable homes, price history and trends.
COMMENT: You can adjust variables for a clearer number, but some adjustments can skew a price wildly. Visual features were helpful.



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