You can get a ballpark figure these days on the value of just about any home in the country with just the click of a mouse -- but don't bet the farm on the dollar amounts.
They can be right on the money or out in left field.
A number of real estate Web sites now offer instant value estimates on existing homes that can be very helpful to homeowners seeking to refinance, as well as to potential homebuyers and sellers.
Sifting through mountains of public records and using sophisticated algorithms that crunch variables such as square footage, number of bedrooms and comparable sales, these Web sites have the ability to generate accurate value estimates on some properties. In some cases, consumers have even found those values to be right in synch with full-blown appraisals.
But in today's unstable housing market, finding the true value of a home can be difficult even for some professional appraisers. And when it comes down to an actual sale, industry experts say, only a licensed or certified appraiser can determine the true value of a home because the electronic figures can be off by large percentages and create unrealistic expectations for buyers and sellers.
At the click of a mouse
Web sites such as Zillow.com, Trulia.com, RealEstate.com and RealEstateABC.com, offer visitors instant values on properties with little more than the click of a mouse. Receiving between 5.5 million and 6 million visitors per month, Trulia.com is one of the fastest growing real estate sites. On average, it has 3.2 million to 3.5 million homes listed for sale and has recorded sales data and past history information on 70 million to 80 million homes. The Web site features property profiles, prices trends and sales prices on public record, and lets visitors compare the properties to other recently sold comparable properties. Trulia gives value ranges for each property and provides public information and average list prices for similar homes. Much like an appraiser uses comparables to determine values, visitors can use the available information to come up with their own fair value for a property.
"Comparables from the past six months are no longer good enough. Markets change every two to four weeks," says Trulia spokesman Ken Shuman. "At Trulia you can compare up to five properties side by side and it's going to give you an idea of what is in the market."
Trulia, a Bankrate.com partner, also features market trend reports that show median sales prices, average listing prices, number of sales and market trends for individual neighborhoods and ZIP codes. An advice and opinion section connects Web site users with real estate professionals through question and answer sessions and blogs. For those looking to estimate the value of a home they want to buy, sell or refinance, Trulia offers virtually all of the information available to an appraiser.
Zillow takes a more direct approach and features a map where visitors can scan through and obtain an immediate "Zestimate" for any property. Amy Bohutinsky, vice president of communications for Zillow, says the site has data on approximately 90 million homes, representing 90 percent of all houses in the country. While information on home sales, tax data and square footage is public in most counties, it is often hard and time-consuming for the general public to attain.
"In most places, a lot of this information is public but hard to find. Sometimes, you literally have to go down to a courthouse and look it up in a book," says Bohutinsky.
Zillow compiles and updates this data up to three times per week and uses sophisticated algorithms to determine values based on available data and information including public records and comparable sales. Square footage, the number of bedrooms, number of baths, lot size, tax assessments, prior sales information and more are considered for the final valuation. For homeowners in the process of selling or simply looking for a more accurate "Zestimate" on their home, they can also log in and add information about remodels or other changes in the home. Integrating maps and images from Google, Zillow offers a site where visitors can literally scan maps and look at estimated home values on just about any property.
"There are literally hundreds of inputs, and the Zestimate of a particular property could change up to three times per week depending on what is happening with home sales in your area," says Bohutinsky.