Realty Check

What's My House Worth??

Don't you just love the end of the month? All those contradictory reports from various private and government groups claiming home values are better/worse/unchanged/unchangeable/untrackable and intractable.

Let's generalize, shall we?

Yesterday we learned from the Realtors that if we sold our house in December we got 1.5 percent more for it than we would have in December of 2008. That's the first annual bonus in two and a half years!

Today we learned from some very smart Yalies at S&P/Case Shiller that if we sold our house in November, and we lived in one of the top twenty cities in the nation, we actually got 5.4 percent less than we would have in November of 2008. However, that's a smaller price hit than we would have gotten (on an annual basis) if we had sold in October.

Then, an hour later, we learned that if we owned a home with a mortgage from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and sold it in November, we would have gotten 0.5 percent more than we would have in November of 2008.

Okay, so what's my house worth?

Consensus says that depends entirely on where you live and how many homes around you are in foreclosure. Your housing market may have changed very little in the last few years or it may have plummeted in value to one of Dante's lower rings.

Right? I have no idea.

I'm trying to refinance my mortgage right now, not because I have to, but because I'd like to take advantage of historically low interest rates, which will likely rise after the government begins pulling out of the housing business this Spring. A little background: I've got plenty of equity in my home. I put more than 30 percent down when I bought it, and that was before the housing boom, so the home appreciated considerably since then. I live in a popular, family-oriented neighborhood — not one of the supremely pricey ones — in DC, most coveted for its excellent elementary school. I happen to know, because I know most of the real estate agents in the neighborhood, and I read every stat, that while sales definitely slowed and prices dipped a little bit, prices did not tank during the bust and even rose a little bit in 2009. Inventory is and always has been low, as very few people leave the neighborhood, and many want in. My home is renovated, with some high-end fixtures and amenities and is move-in ready, no question.

A nice appraiser, who happens to live in the area and knows more about our neighborhood than anyone I've ever heard of, took a few hours in my home and returned what I thought was a fair appraisal. It was NOT as high as a few Realtors suggested the home was worth two years ago, and I think that's right. I saw it as a cautious and conservative estimate using appropriate comps.

Apparently the "review appraiser" from ING Mortgage, the bank that was considering my refi, disagreed. He/she valued the home nearly 20 percent lower! Now let me reiterate that I didn't go into this process thinking I was sitting on a gold mine. Guess what? I'm the real estate reporter for CNBC. I get the whole housing crash thing. I talk, read, and write about it a lot. Like all day long. I know my home has lost some value in the last few years...after big appreciation for three years after I bought it.

I was able to get a look at the comps used by the "review appraiser" who I'm guessing has never set foot in my neighborhood. The comparable houses he/she used are smaller and farther from the main avenue. My street happens to be coveted and pricier because it's less than a block from the main drag. I've been in the other houses, because I snoop through every open house in a mile radius of my own, regardless, and they didn't have nearly the upgrades we do.

So much for my refi.

At the lower appraisal, I don't qualify for the lower rate, and therefore it doesn't make sense for me to do it. Granted, I do have a small home equity loan, which I was going to keep and pay off steadily, as I have been for three years, but even with it I still have plenty of equity in my home.

Yep folks, here you have a network real estate reporter with a good, solid, well-paying job, a husband with a good job, plenty of home equity, and a credit rating through the roof..and a big lender finds me unworthy of its business.

Questions?  Comments?