WHAT'S THE next big trend in selling the American home?
Real estate appraisers are betting that it's the pre-listing appraisal posted on the Web, offering a detailed property description, analysis of up to six "comparable" houses and professional valuation of the seller's property. It would provide prospective buyers hard appraisal data about a home upfront, rather than later, when they go to apply for a mortgage.
Traditionally, professional real estate appraisers work for lenders, even though their fees are paid by homebuyers. Lenders use their data -- typically set out in a Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac Uniform Residential Appraisal Report (URAR) -- to determine how much they can safely lend against a property.
But now appraisers see an entirely different focus for their rich lode of home valuation data: home sellers who want independent, professional guidance apart from real estate agents on how to price their houses to sell for the maximum amount within a specific time period. Once the pre-listing appraisal is completed, it can then be turned into a marketing tool -- posted on the Internet, either on a real estate agent's Web site, a for-sale-by-owner Web site, or on specialized sites designed for pre-appraised homes.
The national trade organization that represents 20,000 licensed real estate appraisers -- the Chicago-based Appraisal Institute -- is developing a Web site called OLA.com that will offer such services early next year to home sellers nationwide. OLA stands for online appraisal.
A potential buyer, for instance, could visit the site and obtain more information on a listed home than is currently available anywhere. Even the most popular Web sites for home shoppers -- Realtor.com and HomeAdvisor.com -- do not provide the wealth of physical and market data about individual properties that a professional URAR appraisal can supply.
That's because appraisals virtually never have been part of the marketing phase for homes. But in the Internet age, where smart consumers demand the richest possible information online -- free and available for inspection day or night -- professional appraisals online appear to be a natural.
John W. Ross recently sold his house in Denver to move to suburban Chicago, where he is executive vice president of the Appraisal Institute. Like most sellers, Ross and his wife interviewed numerous local agents before deciding to list with one. The majority of the Realtors, according to Ross, suggested he list the house in the $187,000 to $195,000 range.
Uncertain of where to price it, the Rosses decided to get a pre-listing appraisal -- both to show to Realtors and, ultimately, to prospective purchasers. After examining the property in detail and researching comparable homes in the area that had sold within the past few months, the appraiser suggested a listing price of $205,000 if the Rosses wanted to sell within 60 days, and $204,000 if they wanted to sell within 45 days.
The Rosses showed the appraisal to the agent they selected and listed the house for $204,000. It sold quickly for "a little over $201,000," according to Ross. The appraiser's work "basically put as much as an extra $14,000 in our pocket," says Ross. The cost of the pre-listing appraisal: $325.
Under the Appraisal Institute's forthcoming OLA.com initiative, appraisers conducting pre-listing valuations will post them on the OLA.com Web site, hot-linking to any other sites the sellers or the sellers' real estate agent cares to use. The OLA.com site will present the house through conventional and virtual-tour photography, and will present the full URAR appraisal.
The URAR contains every scrap of information one needs to evaluate a home: square footage, room plans, lot description, property taxes and assessment, commentary about physical condition, plus detailed analysis of comparable homes sold in the immediate market area.
After a national test involving about 300 appraisers starting the first week of November and lasting until March 2000, OLA.com will open its doors to all sellers, buyers, brokers and house-shoppers in the country. The fact that the participating appraisers will know that their work will be on full public display -- and available to critiques by state licensing regulators -- should exert strong pressure to produce high-quality, accurate and defensible valuations, according to Ross.
A prototype appraisal Web site -- run by the company that is designing OLA.com, Red Planet LLC -- is online and can be visited at www.MFHB.com. The site carries the listings and URAR appraisals of Don Moore, an Appraisal Institute member in Wisconsin. Once the national OLA.com site is up and running early next spring, sellers will be able to order appraisals by institute members, then direct buyers to check out their property in unprecedented detail.
Will buyers have to get new appraisals when they apply for a mortgage? They shouldn't in many instances, thereby cutting their acquisition costs by $300 to $400, unless they choose to split the expense with the seller.
Kenneth R. Harney is a syndicated columnist. Send letters care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington D.C. 20071.