In most California divorces, determining the value of the family home can be one of the most contentious issues. Two issues generally arise: how much is the home worth, and how should this value be divided. Obviously, the question of price must be answered before the second question is addressed.
Many couples are able to reach an agreement on the net value of the home, but what happens if the couple remains divided about its value? The issue cannot be ignored because the judge will ultimately render a decision if the couple cannot agree.
One of the most reliable methods of fixing value is hiring a licensed real estate appraiser to provide a professional opinion on the fair market value of the home.
The mechanics of a professional appraisal
Once an appraiser is hired, the appraiser visits the property that is the subject of the appraisal (this property is usually referred to as the “subject”).
During the visit, the appraiser will make a careful visual inspection that will include measurement of the dimensions of each room, observations about the physical condition of the house, and the presence of any unique features such as a media room, guest rooms, or a renovated kitchen.
The appraiser will also photograph the house or make a video recording. The appraiser will conduct a similar inspection of the exterior of the house. Once the appraiser has gathered the necessary information, he or she will take that information and begin the preparation of the written appraisal report.
The appraisal report
The appraiser’s basic job is providing a professional estimate of the price that a willing buyer would pay to a willing seller, assuming reasonable market conditions. Virtually all professional appraisers use one of two methods to develop this opinion. The first approach is the “cost approach,” which uses data on construction materials and labor to provide an estimate of the cost of replacing the subject. This method is rarely used because labor and materials have very likely inflated since the subject was built.
A more reliable method is the “sales comparison approach.” In using this approach, the appraiser uses public records of land sales to ascertain the price of comparable homes that have recently been sold. The appraiser may also rely on information about the status of the current real estate market.
With the appraisal report in hand, the divorcing couple can use it to decide whether to sell the house to a third party and divide the net proceeds or to divide the house along with the rest of their assets according to the state’s community property laws.