There’s No Such Thing as Market Price

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There. I’ve said it. I’ve blown the lid off one of Real Estate’s greatest secrets. The “Market Value” or “Market Price” of a home is purely fantasy. Let me explain.

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There are many values attached to any piece of property. If it’s on the market for sale, there is the List Price. But, that’s just the asking price. When people are looking to buy property and searching on the internet, I encourage them to search a bit, maybe a good bit, over the their budgeted price, because the list price is not necessarily what the home is going to sell for – often, homes sell for far less than list price.

After the list price, there’s the assessed value. People are always telling me, “Well, the assessed value of the home is only $X, so I don’t want to pay anything more than that.” The assessed value is almost meaningless, thanks to California’s Proposition 13. That’s the figure the government uses to calculate property taxes. It’s no more of an indicator of a home’s value than Zillow is.

Next, let’s say that you’re going to buy a piece of property, and your bank, naturally, requires that you get an appraisal done on it. So the licensed appraiser comes out to the proeprty, does his (or her) thing, and comes up with a value – the appraisal value. Now, you’d think this would be a pretty good indication of value. I’d say it is, at most, a fair indication of value, because if you have two, three, or four appraisers come out, you can easily have two, three, or four different appraised values. That, and there’s this strange thing that happens – the home almost always appraises for just a little tiny teeny bit over the contract price. Miraculous. Now, why is that? It’s because if an appraiser consistently brings in values that are lower than the contract price, who is going to hire that appraiser? Nobody.

Having said that, I’m in escrow on a property where the appraiser just valued it about 9% more than the contract price. That’s pretty wild. And that’s cool. I’m not saying that the house is actually worth 9% more than we’re paying for it – my feeling is it’s worth about 2-3% more than we’re paying for it, but it’s nifty to have a high appraised value, it makes for good talk when drinkin’ beers with your buddies, you can tell them what a steal you got on the place.

After appraised value, there’s the sale price. That’s what the house sells for. Actually, this is a very good indication of market value. The best comparable sale for any property is…itself, because that shows what a ready, willing, and able buyer was willing to pay for a property. In fact, that’s one of those truism-cliches that we bat about in the ol’ real estate office. The buyer sets the price of the property, not the seller. Once the buyer buys that house, he establishes market value for that property.

Now I’m coming to the crux of the matter. These days, there’s such a fever for buying property below market price. After all, why would anyone want to pay market price is a buyer’s market, one in which property prices are declining? Surely you’d want to buy under market price, to provide yourself some protection against declining values? Of course you would! But how can you know what is the market price? There’s the rub.

I’d like to point out what happened a little while ago at 208 Elk Street in Santa Cruz. It was a foreclosure home. It was listed by an out-of-town agent for $539,000. Somehow, someway, someone was able to con the bank into selling it for $500,000. The dirt is probably worth $400,000. It’s a 1500 square foot house. The improvements had to be worth $225,000 – which to me, gives it a value of around $625,000. But the banks, they like to sell the property quick, sometimes to the point where they are practically giving it away. Anyway, some dumb asset manager somewhere let that house go for $500,000.

Was that market price? Well, if you listened to the Realtors ’round the market cooler and all their banter about the buyer setting the price and being the best indicator of market value, blah blah, then you’d be led to believe that’s all the house is worth. Don’t believe it. That house is now back on the market, just right after it closed escrow for $500,000 – only now it’s $599,000. That’s much closer to the $625,000 that I figure it’s worth. So, it’s still selling for below market price – only now, this time, when it sells for $599,000 (or whatever) – will it now set the correct market price?

Yep. It’s a tricky business. When you’re listening to the Real Estate Gurus and buying books about buying 40% under market price, be wary. In my experience, it’s impossible to buy here in Santa Cruz for 40% under market price, whatever that is. That’s because there just aren’t that many stupid people around, unfortunately. Maybe we could get the Bush administration to move to Santa Cruz in January and then we’d all be able to scoop up some deals, I don’t know. But 40% under market value? That would mean 208 Elk Street could have been bought for $375K. Nobody’s that stupid. Well, almost nobody (they’ll greet us with flowers and candy, remember?).

Now, you may, once in a while, be able to buy a property for 40% below it’s highest and best value. That’s another thing. That’s where you buy a property where, in its present condition, it is worth 40% less than it could be, if you poured tons of time, money, and/or sweat equity into the property. That’s possible. But that’s another thing entirely. That’s buying a property, adding value such that it becomes more than the sum of its parts, and selling the profit you’ve just created. That’s a neat trick, too, and if you can do it, well, we all should be reading your blog.

OK, that’s it for now. I gotta go. I’m taking the day off today, after working a grueling 100 hours last week. Have a good weekend y’all!

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