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Ask Adam: Zillow or County Assessments?

by ARLnow.com June 26, 2012 at 10:30 am 4,892 56 Comments

Editor’s Note: This periodic sponsored Q&A column is written by Adam Gallegos of Arlington-based real estate firm Arbour Realty. Please submit follow-up questions in the comments section or via email.

Question: Is it better to use Zillow or the Arlington County assessment to determine home values?

Zillow can provide a fun way to follow an automated estimate of your homes value over time.  Would I use it to price a home I’m going to sell or determine how much to offer on a property for sale?  No.  There is too much money at stake to look past the inaccuracies that Zillow is known for.  I’m not an expert on Zillow, but my guess as to why it is often inaccurate has to do with the system’s inability to know about upgrades to the subject and comparable properties.

Arlington County assessments are a wholesale view of value based on very basic characteristics of a home.  I’ve seen assesment values as much as $200,000 off from the actual market value.  Of course the assessed value was less than market value so the homeowners were quite happy about it, because they were paying less in taxes than they could have been.  Again, I would not recommend using assessed value as a gauge of market value.

I’ll describe how I go about determining market value, but keep in mind that this process is more of an art than a science.  Lots of variables beyond price, weigh in on how a property performs on the open market, such as how it shows, how it is marketed, what time of year it is, etc..  The following explanation is as though I am getting ready to list a home, but you can use elements of the process when considering an offer to purchase a home as well.

The first thing I do is try to find at least three of the most recent and most similar sales in your area that have occurred in the last 6 months.  The next step is to create an even playing field between my subject property and the comparable properties.  This may sound backwards, but I deduct value from the comparable properties for items I feel adds to the value to those homes.  Conversely, I add value to the comparable properties for items I feel reduce the value of those homes.  For example, if my subject property is a condo with one parking space, but the comparable I am using has two parking spaces, I may deduct $20,000 from the value of the comparable.  I go through this process to determine the adjusted value of my comparable sales.  Keep in mind that the $20,000 adjustment (for a garage space in this case) can not be arbitrary.  It should be based on a recent sale were the garage space was a common denominator.   Adjustments can be made for many items, including:

  • Size of home
  • Size of lot
  • Days on market
  • Condition
  • Proximity to major roads
  • School system
  • Age
  • Finishes
  • POA fees

The second step I take is meant to help me understand what my competition is like.  I search for properties currently on the market that are near my subject property (i.e. in the same zip code or part of town) that are about $50,000 below and $50,000 above where I am getting a sense my subject property should be priced (from the exercise above).  Sometimes my range is as much as $100k or as little as $25k depending on the situation.

I then go through each active listing and make notes about how I think the listing would compare with the subject property.  I try to find a sweet spot where our price would make us a better option than everything priced less than our future listing.  It’s a good idea to preview the homes that most closely provide competition.

From here, you should start putting the puzzle pieces together and fine tune your price based on:

  • How the market is performing
  • How quickly homes are selling
  • How well your property will show
  • Unique factors that will draw or detract interest in your listing
  • How easy your home will be to show

I hope this helps.  Please share other ways of determining home values in Arlington that you have found to work for you.

The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com. Community discussion guidelines: While we encourage a spirited exchange of views in the comment section, comments that are deliberately mean-spirited will be removed.

  • JimPB

    Kudos for the concise yet clear, informative and helpful piece.

  • Arlingdude

    I’m sorry, but on what basis are readers to accept the presumed expertise of this guy, from a firm that few if any have ever seen listing homes in Arlington? For all I know, maybe he’s the smartest person ever to hit real estate, but it just seems like he should have a few sales under his belt before he goes issuing advice as if he’s a 30-year veteran of the local market.

    No one cares what the county assessment is; they’re all so way off and inconsistent as to be ridiculous. Serious buyers look at comps for the last few months, using Refin or FranklyMLS.

    • chris

      Why are you ripping this guy? Read the article. He describes a comprehensive, well thought out process for setting an asking price for home, in my opinion. Judge the content of the article on its own merits. Plus, you agree with him about the uselessness of assessments, after ripping him for having no basis for giving advice on Arlnow. I dunno, at least be consistent.

      • Arlingdude

        I hardly think I “ripped” the guy. He might well be intelligent and good at what he does. It’s just that I’ve never once seen a listing from Arbour Realty. Posting advice implies you have expertise, which implies you have a basis for that expertise, such as experience. I’d like to know what that experience is.

        The idea that anyone pays attention to Zillow is silly. It’s as wacky as the County assessments, which people only pay any mind to because they’re the basis for property tax.

        • ArlForester

          My expert advice is to read the advice before ripping it. You’re welcome. Adam wrote nothing I could disagree with. You on the other hand…..

    • ealarlington

      I think you missed spelled your name Arlingdouche. “Serious buyers” are often working with knowledgeable agents like the author of this piece. How many homes have you bought and sold recently? Probably not as many as the author Adam has.

    • ArLater

      Lets rip the guy! Then agree with him!

      Im sorry, but on what basis are readers to consider your contradicting and absurd opinion. Seems like his post is much more legitimate than anything you have to add.

    • Arlingtondude, you pose a valid question. I recommend you only consider my advice if it logically makes sense to you. Not because I do or don’t meet your bar of being an expert.

      In order to become a real estate broker, I had to take an appraisal course, which is where I developed an understanding of how appraisers determine market value. From there I apply what I have found to work for me.

      Regarding my experience, the last time I checked (about 10 months ago) I was in the top 2% of realtors in Arlington. This does not include transactions by my team of 15 agents. In addition to Arbour Realty, I’ve worked at RE/MAX and Weichert. Not sure if this makes you feel more comfortable with my advice, but I appreciate you reading my article and asking questions.

      • SR Guy

        Adam, if a home’s windows are more than 10 years old, all home inspectors, and I mean ALL, will place on their report to get the windows replaced at the seller’s expense. Why did you not mention this factoid in telling us about your appraisal notes and systems? Replacement windows will lower the final price of the home $2,000.00 -$10,000.00, correct?

        • Arlingdude

          The sellers don’t have to agree to that baloney, though. If I were selling a house in this market, and someone demanded I replace all the windows in the house (costing tens of thousands), just because the windows are “old,” I’d laugh in their face and relist if necessary.

        • drax

          My home inspector didn’t do that.

          Home inspections don’t even happen until after the contract. They don’t determine price.

          Appraisers, you mean? They don’t make recommendations like that, they only offer an opinion on current value.

          What are you talking about?

          • SR Guy

            Home inspectors issue a report on the condition of the home and the estimated costs associated with righting any wrong. If your windows are more than 10 years old, “replacing windows” goes in the report with any other damage or wrong that needs righting. So, as a seller, you can replace the windows yourself, or deduct that cost of replacement from the agreed upon selling price. Most choose the later.

          • ArlForester

            Or they buy the house “as is” because Arlington is a good market.

        • SomeGuy

          SR Guy, he didn’t tell you because his statement that “Adjustments can be made for many items, including…” implies that the list he presented is not exhaustive. So imagine that– it’s not exhaustive.

          You do realize that these are “Sponsored” articles, right? As I’ve said several times before, I usually ignore sponsored articles, but I read Adam’s because he allows comments to stay open despite knowing that people will make dim-witted comments on content he’s *paying* to publish.

          • Arlington Cat

            I understand this, but after going through selling a home in Arlington last year, the one thing no one told me UPFRONT, including my realtor, is that since my windows were more than 10 years old, the home inspector will reccomend replacement and have that cost deducted from the offered price.

            When it happened, everyone (agents, banks, and title people), told me, “oh, that’s normal,” and “you should have expected that.”

            But no one told me to expect it until after the home selling process was 90% complete. So, for anyone who is putting their house up for sal,e I am telling you to expect and plan for this surprise if your windows are more than 10 years old.

            Your agent may not tell you, but I will. Aren’t I a nice guy?

          • CW

            Isn’t like the number one rule of bargaining to not give up your position too early? So it’s part of the game they play. The RE agent doesn’t mention the windows, it comes out during the inspection, you drop the price a couple thousand, and the buyer feels like they made out like a bandit.

            Conversely, if the RE agent lists the “correct” price, the buyer will probably feel like they need to do some bargaining and won’t move until the seller gives in somewhere else, resulting in a lower price at the end of the day.

          • SR Guy

            He should have told me to expect it. To not tell me, and then to tell me it was “normal,” and I “should have expected it” was a little frustrating.

        • Mr Neutron

          This is nonsense, none of my home inspectors (2 purchases in Arlington) recommended this and as a seller I would never agree to it.

          And when we bought our 1950-built house in 2007 we left the well made original double hung windows w/ storm windows alone, the cost to replace (several thousand $) would take many years to recoup in energy savings, etc.

          I think you’re seeing the wrong home inspectors.

          • Mr Neutron

            and btw, the cost of replacing was not backed out of the selling price on either of our purchases or sales, you evaluate the price of the house holistically and you can try to negotiate this or that, but a price decrease based on window age has never been an explicit consideration in my 4 Arlington transactions over 25 yrs.

            It may be part of the calculus in setting the asking price or the offer, but it hasn’t been a separate line item for negotiation.

        • Helen

          Adam is addressing how you go about setting the price when you list the house for sale. A home inspector comes in play after a contract is written, accepted and the seller has the option of saying no to that expense.

      • Arlingdude

        Adam, I appreciate the courteous reply.

  • val

    County assessments are a joke. Anyone who has tried to appeal one knows that.

    • ACDC Hack

      You mean that you feel that the Board of Equalization is not an impartial body rendering fair opinions ???

      I am shocked, shocked I say !!

    • Arlington Cat

      Right. If assessments were at “market value” we would have a homeowner’s revolt like we have never seen in this country before. The local treasurers know this fact so they have their own formulas they use to keep assessments down. In my experience assessments are undervalued at 10-15 percent.

      The eye is the most important factor in determining real estate value. A fresh coat of paint, newer windows, sparkling hardwood floors, a nice patio or deck, and newer appliances are appealing and make the potential buyer more comfortable with a higher price. The prospective buyer will look at a property and get self motivated if the unit is in move in condition with little perceived expenses on their side for upgrades or replacements soon down the road. However, if the appliances are older, the paint is not fresh, the cabinets are circa 1975, and/or the patio is in poor condition, the potential buyer is bringing down the offering price in his or her mind and then offer the lower price.

  • Tabby_TwoTone

    The Zillow and Trulia estimates of my home’s value are awful.

    • homeowner

      I just happen to have had mine appraised recently, so I can compare. Zillow was really close. Trulia was way too low.

      • Tabby_TwoTone

        How much did you pay?

        • drax

          For the appraisal? Don’t remember.

          • The Walrus is Paul

            drax is homeowner. Homeowner is drax. Koo-Koo-Ka-Choo.

          • drax

            I like to use a name that indicates why I’m posting sometimes. Big deal. My real name isn’t drax either – big surprise.

          • Zip

            believe everything you read on the internet, folks.

      • Mr Neutron

        just out of curiosity I checked ours: the 2 were within $5k of each other, both approx. $10-20k below what I think it might sell for but not absurdly low.

        assessed value w/ Arl. Co. is about 8% below Trulia & Zillow …

  • q

    Nice explanation, thanks!

  • DarkHeart


  • Faye Jissette

    What determines a house’s value is what someone is willing to pay for it. If Zillow, Trulia, the assessor’s office, and Adam all say your house is worth $500,000 but nobody is willing to pay more than $425,000, then that is what it is worth.

    • drax

      We know.

      • Economist

        Then what’s the purpose of this article?

        • R. Griffon

          Because “Whatever people will pay for it” is ultimately pretty useless for anyone with a real need to know. It doesn’t help a seller to select an optimal listing price. Nor does it assure a buyer that they aren’t over-paying for a house that they desire. Nor does it help someone to calculate the worth of a home they have no intent to sell in order to calculate their net worth and/or equity in case they’re thinking of taking out another loan.

          It’s like someone asking “When should I double-down in Blackjack?” and Faye’s response was “When you’re gonna win.”

  • CW

    Two ways to value an Arlington home when putting it on the market:

    1) Set the price astronomically high. There is so little supply that the odds of finding an actual comp in a recent time frame are low. Buyers will pay what you ask for.

    2) Set the price slightly lower. Await bidding war.

    • HayDiosMio

      Exactly! this is why i say, you don’t need a sellers agent….

  • WeiQiang

    3) Call BCN and ask.

    • Joan Fountain

      How would the Barcelona airport know?

      • WeiQiang

        I was going to weave a tale relating the two, but there are a lot of negative vibes here this week, Moriarity. So, please to Googleize “BCN” AND “Lyon Village”.


        • HayDiosMio

          too lazy, you tell me story ….

        • Captain Perv McPervo

          Esta bien … un ano antes, cuando el sol …

          • HayDiosMio

            “one anus before” what?

          • CW

            Oh cut him some slack, common error, a couple of those will teach you to stop leaving out the tildes real quick!

          • drax

            Something about cruising spots.

          • WeiQiang

            Yeah, about that. I can do the tilde on my phone but not on here.

  • esmith69

    Thanks for the informative post, Adam.

    And ignore the haters, they’re just…well…actually I have absolutely no idea why any sane, logical person would find anything wrong with your article.

    Just trying to figure out why “Arlingdude” spouted off his ridiculousness is making my brain hurt.

  • sunflower

    too many of us follow the rule of PFTL—post first; think later (if ever)

  • adam looks nice. *howls*

    • that’s all i have to say about this. prob shouldn’t have even wasted the time typing it or this. *howls & runs back into the woods*

  • The Bible

    God owns all property.

    • ACDC Hack

      “God owns all property.”

      Good to know….I’ll inform the county that they are sending the tax bill to the wrong address.

  • CW

    Re: assessments – do homeowners complain more loudly that the assessments are low and make their home look undervalued come selling time, or that the assessments are high and force them to pay higher taxes in the interim?


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