Appearances can make or break home appraisal


LOS ANGELES -- Appraiser Lindsay McMenamin doesn't like to find locks on doors, garages and guest houses when she estimates a home's value. "I really hate climbing through windows," said Ms. McMenamin, president of Appraisal Institute's Los Angeles chapter.

Providing easy access is just one thing you can do to smooth the appraisal process -- especially in this soft real estate market, when a slightly higher appraisal can be the difference in closing a sale or refinancing a home.

Appearances count, appraisers and real estate professionals say, so it's worthwhile to make sure your house is in good shape. "Probably most important is to have the house spruced up," said Russell Hitomi, an appraiser in suburban Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Some tips:

* Painting is a relatively easy way to improve your home's look. If a roof has been repaired or replaced, finish the job and paint over any water stains.

* Clean carpets and drapes. If they're in really bad shape, consider replacing them because appraisers will deduct that cost from a home's final value.

* Lawns and other landscaping should be kept up. Drought is no excuse for brown grass or withered trees and shrubs, appraisers say. You don't need lavish greenery, but landscaping should at least be comparable to surrounding homes.

* Clutter should be minimized inside the house and out in the yard. Appraisers say that they understand the demands of family life and that keeping a pristine household is not possible for many working parents. But piles of wood debris next to a house, for example, could point to a termite problem and should be removed.

Appraisers photograph properties, and that can influence a lender's impression of a home.

Once appraisers arrive, they appreciate any information you can provide.

Sales of comparable homes is the biggest factor influencing a house's value, so make sure an appraiser knows about relevant transactions. Homeowners who keep tabs on sales in their neighborhoods might know of a private transaction that wouldn't show up in a multiple listing service.

Comparable sales should be within the past six months, preferably three months given the declining local market.

If you're refinancing, you can get comparable sales from a real estate agent or the county assessor's office. Home sellers can ask their agent for comparable sales.

Besides comparable sales information, appraisers said a list of a home's positive attributes can be helpful. New plumbing, heating or electrical systems enhance a home's value but may not be readily apparent to an appraiser. Appraisers need copies of final signed permits for improvements such as new rooms or second stories. And appraisers check public records for permits, so it's no use to mislead them about an improvement.

It helps if someone knowledgeable about the property can accompany the appraiser to answer questions and point out features that distinguish a home from nearby properties.

While sprucing up is easy in the short term, renovating bathrooms and kitchens brings the best return on a remodeling investment, real estate professionals say. Worn-out ovens and dishwashers can detract from a kitchen's appearance. And upgrading old counters or repainting cabinets can improve a kitchen short of a major renovation.

But make sure the workmanship is top-notch. "If it's not done well you could be in for a loss because the next person will have to replace it," Ms. McMenamin said.

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