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Looking to get a free online home appraisal? Whether you’re looking to sell soon, considering a home equity line of credit, or just plain curious, your home value is an important part of your overall financial picture.
While the results of these tools can be limited in accuracy, sometimes you don’t want (or need) to pay up to $500 when you’re just in “planning mode” or satisfying curiosity.
Whether you plan to remodel the kitchen, are on the fence about “Should I sell my house now or wait?”, or are simply interested in getting an estimate of value, let’s take a look at where to get a free home appraisal and the degree to which these tools are helpful.
Why home value matters
For most demographics, a home is not only a place to live but also the most valuable asset on their household balance sheet.
How much your home is worth will likely affect the size of your retirement fund later in life, your ability to afford a larger home, and the amount of equity you can borrow for renovations.
Recent years have been especially kind to U.S. home values. The average American homeowner saw an equity boost of 7.3% in the fourth quarter of 2022 from a year earlier, according to a data report from property analytics company CoreLogic.
As the persistent high inflation hits Americans at the gas pump and in the grocery store, rising home values have been a silver lining for the nation’s homeowners.
Reasons to get a free home appraisal
A free home appraisal — which is actually not an appraisal but an online home value estimate — can’t replace the opinion of a professional appraiser and is unlikely to be as accurate as a real estate agent’s CMA (comparative market analysis). However, checking your home value online can be helpful in a variety of scenarios:
You’re looking to sell soon
People thinking about listing their home in the near future may use a home value estimator as a starting point. If it’s been five, 10, or 15 years since you purchased, you may be unfamiliar with current trends and need to get re-oriented with the market. An estimate of value can also help you run some back-of-the-napkin math on your potential net proceeds from the sale after accounting for your outstanding mortgage balance and the fees associated with selling.
You’re on the brink of 20% equity
Generally, you can request to cancel PMI (private mortgage insurance) when you reach at least 20% equity in your home. An online estimate can give you an idea of whether you’re in striking distance and if it’s time to contact your loan servicer about whether you qualify. Keep in mind that your eligibility will also depend on factors like how much you still owe on the loan and your payment history.
You have plans to remodel
Dying to rip out your 1970s kitchen or redo the bathrooms? A home value estimate can provide an idea of what your home is currently worth. From there, you can ballpark the amount of value a certain type of renovation would add and whether the total cost of the project makes sense.
You’re considering a home equity loan
A home value estimate can give you an idea of how much money you might be able to access through a home equity line of credit, for instance. (See our guide on: what is home equity?)
“Some people will use them because they want to remodel and are curious how much equity they may have or what their home may be worth after the work,” says Joshua Cooley, a top-selling real estate agent in Eugene, Oregon.
You’re going through a life change
A divorce or death in the family is another common reason people use online home value estimators. Any official legal proceeding will likely need an appraiser’s report, but heirs or estranged spouses often like to get a general idea of a property’s worth.
How free home appraisals work
Many online real estate sites provide free home valuations — including HomeLight. Each one arrives at their valuations using their own formula. Generally speaking, though, AVMs use some combination of the following data, in addition to proprietary software, to determine the value of a property:
- Data from a county auditor and tax assessor’s records. This includes a home’s property tax assessment and the auditor’s assessment of gross living area for a particular property.
- MLS listings and sales. Free home appraisal tools will draw from recently sold comparable homes to determine property value.
- User-submitted data. On certain platforms, users can update the facts of their property for a more accurate reading, adding information that might boost value like additional bathrooms, a new roof, or a kitchen renovation.
AVMs use mathematical modeling to process this data and determine an estimation of what your home is worth, based in large part on the prices of recently sold homes near you.
Options to get a free home appraisal
You can consider HomeLight’s Home Value Estimator to begin with.
With HomeLight, you input your address, and the software will analyze millions of real estate transactions, collect details about your property, and pull in the most important elements of a comparative market analysis. Users then receive a preliminary estimate of value in under two minutes.
We’ll also back up our estimate with your home’s Simple Sale price, if a cash offer for your home is of interest at all.
In 2023, your options to get a free home value estimate are extensive. We put together a list of 8 home value estimators compared, featuring tools from Chase Bank, Bank of America, RE/MAX, Eppraisal, and others to review. You can always use more than one and see what you get!
It’s important to note that our free home estimate, like others offered on the web, does not constitute an actual appraisal. It’s an estimate to be used as a first pass or starting point.
Free appraisals vs. professional appraisals
Licensed appraisers are still an integral part of the housing industry.
“[Online tools] set the initial benchmark,” says Cooley. “But these tools don’t walk through your home. They don’t engage with the five senses.”
Here’s how an appraiser’s process will differ from an online estimate:
Square footage: Data vs. measurement
An AVM uses publicly available records from places like the county auditor’s office to gather a property’s gross living area, but these figures can be out of date, or even inaccurate, explains Jamie Owen, a Northeastern Ohio appraiser with over two decades of experience in the field.
Appraisers instead will physically measure the interior and exterior of the home to make sure the public records are accurate. “Gross living area is probably the number one factor for the value of that land,” Owen explains, “but pulling it off of the public record can be flawed.”
“AVMs can be weak in specific areas,” says Owen. For example, a neighborhood under a certain ZIP code might be split into two different school districts, a major value differentiator. An appraiser with that local knowledge would know to pull comps from homes only within that same school district, while an AVM might mix comps from the two districts, resulting in a skewed valuation for your property.
In addition, an AVM might struggle to calculate the value of a property with little to no available comps in sparse or rural areas. In that case, an appraiser would probably have better success using an alternative method of calculating value, such as the cost approach or income approach, or through firsthand and personal knowledge of the locale.
An AVM must work with the data and information it has to calculate a home’s value. These tools will not know that you completely renovated the second-floor bathroom unless you input those details. An appraiser has the advantage of taking a home’s real-time condition into account with an onsite visit of the property.
Value of unique features
AVMs have respectable precision when it comes to determining the value of homes in a development or condominium complex, says Owen, because they are all relatively the same.
However, if your home is unique or different in some way from the rest on the block, online estimation tools may not value it with as much accuracy. Sellers will see this especially when it comes to lakefront properties or homes with a view, where precise location makes a big difference in appeal and value.
Where AVMs lose in accuracy points, however, they gain in speed — they’re able to comb through millions of pieces of data almost instantly to estimate a home’s value, making it a fast and easy starting point for many home sellers, says Owen.
However, you won’t always understand where the estimate comes from. “A good appraiser can tell you where they obtained their data, and how they developed every aspect of the appraisal,” Owen says. “You can’t ask a computer that.”
In addition to rapid market changes, the user data also can be flawed because “it’s so subjective,” says Lorraine Danielson, a top real estate agent in the Atlanta area. People might be able to answer specific questions clearly, such as, “Have you finished your basement?,” but asking a homeowner to rate their home’s condition as “good” or “fair” is tricky. “There’s that human element to it. … What some people think is messy is other people’s best day ever.”
Next up: Get a comparative market analysis
If you thought the only way to get a free home appraisal was on the internet, you’d be wrong! Somewhere between AVMs and a licensed appraiser, a top local real estate agent is going to be able to help you find out how much your house would sell for through what’s called a comparative market analysis (CMA).
Danielson says her office always asks people why they want to know their home value, then works with them to connect with a lender or provide the information they need. “We work with great lenders if they’re looking to refinance or cash out,” she says. “We try to be a resource there. As automated as you are, you still need people.”
CMA pulls in characteristics an AVM might miss
Like appraisers, real estate agents use comps as a reference point for the subject home and then make dollar adjustments based on competitive differences. The analysis will take into account significant features that drive or reduce value. An agent will be able to pull comps from their local MLS, giving them greater insights into the area, and will also offer to do a walkthrough of your home if you’re thinking about listing it.
The CMA, with a more in-depth look at unique characteristics of your home and property, will be more accurate than an online estimate, and can actually be used to help guide your pricing strategy before your home hits the market. If your agent’s done their homework, the CMA should be close to the appraising price of the home.
How to get a CMA
An agent’s CMA will be free as part of their listing services, but keep in mind that if an agent goes through the work of putting together a CMA for you, they may expect to at least be in the running to represent the home on the market.
While an agent’s CMA can be trusted as a pricing tool, listing your home based on an AVM alone is risky — real estate experts advise using these tools as a starting point rather than the final word.
What to do if your home’s online estimate looks off
If you’re a homeowner who doesn’t check their home’s value online obsessively, you may be surprised to find that the estimates being presented on various sites look off. This can be a problem because when the time comes to sell, buyers are going to look up your address and if the internet says your home is worth way less than you’re asking for, it could weaken your negotiating position.
So, start owning your home’s history and value online. Claiming your property on sites like Zillow, Redfin, and Realtor, and updating your home’s online value, can change the perception of the property to better align with its current value.
In addition, check your records with the local county assessor’s office to determine if the information they have on file is the most accurate report of your property. If it isn’t, contact your assessor to request the record be updated. When the public record is updated, the estimation on the AVMs should change the next time it combs public data.
Free home estimates: A great starting point
Everyone needs a starting point, and when it comes to finding the value of your home, a free online home estimate is a great one. You’ll be able to figure out a ballpark estimate of your home’s value within seconds, giving you a general idea of how much your home may be worth.
But an AVM is not the end all be all when figuring out the price of your home. The figure won’t hold up under the scrutiny of a formal appraisal, and it’s just not tailored enough to help you determine pricing strategy. Start with an online estimate, but follow it up with the opinion of a trusted agent if you’re planning to sell soon.
Header Image Source: (Pixasquare / Unsplash)
- "Single-family Homeowners Typically Accumulated $225,000 in Housing Wealth Over 10 Years," National Association Of Realtors (January 2022)
- "Homeowner Equity insights," CoreLogic Economy Team (March 2023)
- "What Is a Property Tax Assessment and How Can You Appeal It?," U.S News & World Report (April 2023)