It's time to update the Internet Prospector's guide to analyzing home value, since my last stab at it was clear back in 1999. Especially since this is a task researchers must undertake regularly.
Figuring out what a prospect's real estate is worth can take you on a merry chase. If you can’t afford Lexis's Asset Locator or frequent subscription purchases, there are some free sites that can help you estimate property value.
First, see if you can get the assessment directly from the assessor's office Web site. Stop in at the University of Virginia's Portico site
or Northwestern University's Tax Assessor page at
for direct links to assessor pages. There are an increasing number of assessor’s offices offering Web access to their databases and many of these (hurrah!) are searchable by address or owner name.
Just a reminder -- assessed value is often not the same as market value. Market value is defined by the Outlook Money Glossary at
as "The highest price a buyer will pay and the lowest price a seller will accept for an asset. Market value may be different from the price an asset could actually be sold at."
Market value, in real estate, is generally based on the most recent sale price of the home or, if the last sale was over a year ago, by comparing it to similar properties in like areas sold within the last year and using those sale prices to set market value.
Assessed value is defined as "The value of an asset, as determined by a tax assessor, for taxation purposes." The formula for assessed value is usually the most recent market value or sales price times a multiplier (percent). The multiplier varies from state to state and even between the assessor districts within a state. The multiplier also usually varies by property type (vacant or improved) and zoning (agricultural, residential, commercial) and improvement type (single dwelling, multi-unit dwelling, multiple dwellings, industrial, office, etc).
An assessor’s record will list separate values for the land and the improvements (usually buildings). For evaluating assets, the total assessed value is the figure to use. However, in a profile, you should note if the improvements are the majority of the real estate value because that means the property will not gain as much value over time since land values generally increase faster than improvement values, which can actually depreciate.
If assessor data isn't searchable, you can Yahoo:
Just put in the address of the home in which you are interested and get a values list for that address and neighboring addresses. What's really nice about this tool is seeing the value of surrounding properties, which puts the prospect's property in context.
Alternately, you can get Excited. Excite lets you search for a single house, an entire street or a range of addresses on a street and captures sales clear back to 1987. This is nice because you can see how much home values have gone up for a single home or a whole neighborhood – helpful if a development officer wants to use a real estate holding to estimate the basis for a planned gift. One really great thing about Excite is that it allows a search by a specific condo or unit number in its single house search (something Yahoo doesn't do), which is useful for pricing that penthouse condo in Manhattan. Excite also can identify affluent streets in a city with its price range search option. Don't make the ranges too broad or a "too much data" message will appear. You can follow this up by mining your donor database with a street name search to find that $100 donor who lives in an $8 million home.
The values on Yahoo and Excite are recent sale prices. If the property you are investigating is not listed, you can prepare an estimate based on neighboring properties. Be sure to note it’s an estimate in the profile because you could be putting a $500K price tag on the only scrubby summer cottage left in a neighborhood of mansions or guessing $75K for an elegant mansion on the fringes of a poor neighborhood.
Failing all else, you can resort to the antiquated method of using the phone. Find the phone numbers for assessors who don't provide searchable data on the Web at Northwestern's site, listed above.
Some assessors will not give information over the phone. For instance, some counties in California require a written request, a self-addressed stamped envelope and payment in advance before mailing you property information.
If you still can't find it, you may need to (oh nooooo!!!) pay for the information. Internet Prospector usually does not list fee-for-service sites, but these are relatively inexpensive “last resort” sites necessary to round out this article. Try the "pay as you go" by credit card feature provided by LexisNexis at
Searching is free and you pay only a very small fee for each record ordered, plus state sales tax. You have to sign up and give your credit card number first.
KnowX charges more per record, but is the better choice if you are researching someone with a ton of property, because you can buy all the records from one search for a flat fee plus a small search fee. You have to sign up with a credit card before you can search.
No bachHa, the Klingon Version of Google's search engine really works. In Klingon, I think, and definitely in English. Buy n'qop!
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