The Key to a Successful Refinance: The House Appraisal

When you are refinancing your mortgage the appraisal is the most important part of the process. You want the value of your home to come back as high as possible in order to make the loan to value ratio as low as possible. If your appraisal value puts your home equity at less than 20%, the higher the amount of equity in your property (the difference between the home’s value and your mortgage balance) the more competitive the interest rate you are likely to get since lenders consider borrowers with more equity to be less risky. If you are refinancing your mortgage you need to understand the home appraisal’s essential role in the process.

What Is a Home Appraisal?

An appraisal is an opinion of a home’s value provided by a third party who is qualified to provide this opinion. The appraiser gets paid for providing the service of valuing your home. In a refinance transaction, the appraisal protects the mortgage lender by ensuring that it doesn’t provide a loan of more than the property is worth. If the property later goes into foreclosure or power of sale for any reason, the lender wants to be able to resell the property and get its money back.

The appraiser will contact you to schedule the appointment and often their visit to your home will be between 30 and 45 minutes to tour through the whole house and take pictures and notes on the finishes and condition, measure its dimensions, and evaluate its overall condition both inside and out. The appraiser will then go back to his or her office and conduct research on your property, the legal description, the lot dimensions, sales history, etc. and then he will search for adequate comparables. Ideally the appraiser will be able to find comparable sales that took place in your immediate neighbourhood in the past 3 months. Based on the home visit and these records, the appraiser arrives at a professional opinion of how much your property would sell for if you put it on the market. The mortgage lender then uses this value, along with your income, assets and credit history – to determine how much it will lend you and at what rate.

How Home Appraisals Work in Today’s Market

The lender or mortgage broker often will order the appraisal through a third party called an appraisal management company (AMC) or contact the appraisal company directly. Many lenders have direct referral relationships with a small panel of appraisers and don’t use an AMC. Or the lender may have an in-house independent appraisal department. The appraiser should have local knowledge of the area (called market competence). Appraisers are expected to follow the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice issued by their Appraisal Foundation.

Home Appraisal Fees

Residential home appraisal fees vary based on the size of the home and other factors, but typically you should expect to pay $250 to $400 for an appraisal of a standard single-family home. More complex properties are more expensive because the inspection takes more time.

You may be required to pay the fee up front at the time of the appraisal or in other cases it will be paid for from the proceeds of the mortgage refinance, regardless of whether your loan closes, the appraiser still did the work and needs to be paid. While the fee may seem worthwhile if it enables you to get the refinance terms you want, it can seem like a waste of money if a low appraisal means you can’t refinance.

An option is to ask a real estate agent to do a comparative market analysis and provide you with printouts of recent comparable sales from the Multiple Listing Service, taking this step could potentially save you hundreds of dollars by saving you from wasting your money paying for an appraisal if the value is too low to refinance.

Improving Your Chances of a High Appraisal

The value the appraiser gives your home largely depends on the recent sales prices of comparable properties, but there are definitely steps you can take to help secure a higher value.

The biggest thing is making sure your property is neat and clean, uncluttered and easy to inspect. Any pets should be contained and smells masked. Ensure your appraiser feels comfortable in the home and can focus on taking in all the features of your home. Having a dirty or unkempt home definitely will give the appraiser a bad first impression and will make the home appear in poorer condition than it actually is.

The biggest thing an appraiser takes into account is:

exterior and interior condition
total room count
functionality, including interior room design and layout, and functional obsolescence
improvements to kitchens and baths, windows, the roof and the home’s systems (heating, electrical and plumbing) over the previous 15 years that make the home more up-to-date, functional and livable by today’s standards
condition and age of the home’s systems
exterior amenities such as garages, decks and porches
location
unappealing features, such as an exterior appearance that’s inconsistent with the rest of the neighborhood

It’s a good idea to create a list of your property’s features to provide to the appraiser when he or she arrives.

Getting a Second Opinion on a Low Appraisal

A lot of homeowners are not realistic about their home’s value, there is definitely an emotional factor that can lead to the homeowner thinking their home is worth more than reality, however there are definitely cases where the appraiser may have determined a final value that is on the conservative side and this may sink your refinance.

Keep in mind an appraisal is just one person’s opinion, the appraiser should be well trained and educated, however as with all professions, there are good and bad practitioners.

If the homeowner does not like the value of the appraisal, they can write a letter of appeal to the lender or AMC, but the chance of an appraiser changing his or her opinion is very slim, unless the homeowner has overwhelming evidence that the value is off.

You may be able to make a case by pointing out that the comparables used were in an inferior school district or an inferior subdivision, or that they have other adverse influences affecting value, such as being on a busy street.

The Bottom Line

Understanding how the appraisal process works will give you the best chance of getting an appraiser to assign the highest possible value to your property. Appraisals don’t always come in at the values borrowers hope for, and they are a human process with room for subjectivity and mistakes. You can appeal a low appraisal, but you’ll only succeed with strong data to back you up.