Appraising Lakes, Beyond Front Footage

2017-08-13 20.48.44

When attempting to determine the value of lakefront property, there’s so much more to the equation than just measuring waterfront space. Here’s what appraisers and agents need to know.

As summer approaches, activity on lakes—large and small—increases. But in my experience as a REALTOR® and certified appraiser, it is apparent that many agents, brokers, and appraisers have not acquired all the knowledge, skills, and perspective needed to accurately evaluate lakefront property. In the hope of filling in some of the gaps, here are some tips on how appraisers can provide a more defensible appraisal on these complex properties as well as some of the nuances that agents who are new to lake properties should consider.

The Why of the Buy

Both appraisers and agents alike need to be aware of the motivations that result in sales. Appraisers need to be in touch with the vagaries of the different submarkets in order to adequately analyze the properties they appraise, and agents need to understand that there is much more to selling lake property than front footage.

What motivates a buyer to purchase a lake property? Is it the tranquility? The beauty of the water? The excitement of a speedboat and waterskiing, or casting a line into the water in hopes of landing a trophy catch? It is all of these things, and none of these things. The motivations are almost as numerous as the buyers looking for a lake house are, and one buyer’s paradise is another’s hell. Different types of lakes attract different buyers, and the buyer looking for tranquility is going to be very unhappy purchasing a house on a lake crowded with jet skis and powerboats. The same would be true for the avid motorist who buys on a small, quiet fishing lake.

Quality Over Quantity

While some depend on how many “front feet” the property has on the water to determine value, that is not necessarily the best course. The amount of frontage usually relates to space between neighbors and how much area is available for docking and beach toys. But consider the house sitting on the edge of a bluff, with 200 feet of frontage and 100 steep steps down to the water. What if the shoreline is also rocky and reedy? Five lots south, the topography has sloped in to a gentle, almost level lot and the frontage itself is a natural sandy beach. This lot has only 50 feet at the lakefront. Which is more valuable?

The value of a lake property could be tied not only to the ease of the access and the quality of the frontage but also to the lake itself. For a clean swimming lake, the narrower 50-foot lot might be much more valuable than the less accessible 200-foot lot. But for a lake that is picturesque but not good for swimming or boating, the 200-foot lot with the elevated views might be the more valuable site. It all depends on the lake and why buyers might be interested in that particular spot.

Present and Future Demand

I live and work in Michigan, a state surrounded by lakes of all kinds. The Great Lakes are a treasure, but not exactly the bastions of privacy and quiet you see on some of the smaller inland lakes. Many of our inland lakes are massive in size, deep, and clean. Some are shallow, reedy, and mucky, making them more of a viewing amenity than anything else. Some lakes allow all the toys and others only a kayak or canoe. Some are merely ponds in buyers’ eyes.

There are many questions that buyers, real estate agents, and appraisers should consider in addition to the present appeal of the lake itself, because these issues contribute to whether the lake remains appealing into the future. Some lakes are manmade in that they are the result of damming a river. Some municipalities are considering removing such dams—in that case, what happens to the manmade lake? Some lakes have been invaded by unwelcome species such as zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil, and other nuisances. Lakes with public access sites tend to have more trouble with these invasive species, though they do also travel naturally through waterfowl and other means. Could a lake with an invasive species problem become less desirable than one without? Is there any guarantee that a pristine lake will remain so? What about the life cycle of a lake? Is it a dying lake, or is it likely to stay in similar condition for the foreseeable future? How is the management on the lake? Is there an active association that seeks to ensure the health of the lake? Are septic systems monitored? Does the association have prohibitions against fertilizers?

But just as bodies of water can change, so too can our perspectives on them. Is it possible that we are starting to see a shift, as our population ages, to the desire for quiet lakes that do not allow gas motors? It used to be that these quiet “no-wake” lakes had less appeal, but in many instances, they are now attracting buyers that would not have considered them 10 or 20 years ago. There is something to be said for the quiet of a lake without loud motors and loud reveling at all hours of the day and night. On the other hand, these lakes have limitations of use, and buyers who want to have it all might find the sportier lakes desirable, in particular if there are limited year-round residents. The lack of year-round residents could mean that the owner has quieter weekdays, with increased activity on the weekends and over holidays.

The Tools at Your Disposal

The Department of Natural Resources maintains lake maps in most areas. These maps show the topography and composition of the lake bottom. DNR maps will also show public access points, existing housing, and other features. Appraisers and agents alike should become familiar with these maps. Plat maps are also available in many areas, and these can be used to examine other features, such as ownership issues where a third party may control the frontage in between a property and the lake shore. Another concern that can impact value is keyholing or funneling, where backlot owners have rights to a parcel on the water. Just being aware of some of these issues can help you be a better advocate for your client and know when to direct them toward legal counsel to help determine whether they have water rights.

Not All Sales Are Comparable

If possible, it’s best to find comparables on the same lake, but remember, lakes also have varied topography, both on shore and to the lake bottoms, and just because the potential comparable property is on the same lake might not mean that the properties are actually comparable.

Appraisers need to understand the lake itself and which lakes are reasonable alternates if nothing is available on the lake upon which we are doing our appraisal. Know your market and write about what is important to the target audience. How large is the lake? How deep is it? What types of activities are allowed on the lake? What are the other lakes that the buyer for our property would reasonably consider and why? Fully describe the topography, frontage, and access to the water at the subject site. Write about whether the beach is sandy, mucky, rocky, reedy, and so forth. Document sunrise and sunset views, parking, and docking. Agents don’t have the same communication requirements as appraisers do here, but they should be aware of what appraisers are considering and what they are reporting, because such factors affect the pricing conversation as well.

Determining logical comparable search criteria is incredibly important in lakefront homes because buyers may consider properties on lakes that are 20 or 30 miles apart, something that might scare some of the most experienced underwriters if not properly explained. A smart appraiser will set the stage ahead of time through the narrative in the report, which will help the underwriter and reviewers understand the thought process for the choice of comparables. Once the appraisers have spelled out the reasons that have drawn a buyer to the subject lake, discussion follows about the lakes that are competitive and why they are competitive. This can justify the use of sometimes very distant comparables.

Agents can help by providing appraisers with information about the lakes that the buyer considered and why they considered them as competitive. If your buyer would only consider one lake, explain why. While it might not be possible for the appraiser to stay on that lake due to lack of recent sales data, the buyer’s motivations to that lake over others can still be helpful.

Summer is coming and lake buyers will be out in force again soon. Be prepared to have a lake appraisal take longer and be costlier than a regular subdivision job. Take the extra time necessary for these lake deals to research the lake and the site, in addition to the improvements on the site. Hopefully the extra effort will pay off and you’ll be better able to enjoy your next lakeside sunset or cool dip in the water.


Reprinted from REALTOR® Magazine Online, March 2018, with permission of the National Association of REALTORS®. Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.

beyond front footage







It certainly would be ideal to have a magic pill that would allow one to stay in shape, at the same time as staying productive at work. The advent of the treadmill desk and its increasing popularity is making this magic pill seem a real possibility. Imagine being able to work, talk, research and type, all while walking. Sounds great doesn’t it? It is, but there are limitations. The set up can be awkward, and if you are vertically, or space challenged, there can be limitations with the workspace. If you are a bit of an overachiever, like I have a tendency to be, there can be real limitations to the physicality of the system.

I purchased my first treadmill desk in 2011 in an effort to get up off my seat and ease my aching back. Sitting was causing a whole host of physical issues, not the least of which was an increasingly widening girth and backside. I already owned a good solid treadmill from the days when I was a runner, and trained on this workhorse of a machine. The desk itself was something that could go on top of any treadmill and that was very appealing because it made the set up much less expensive than buying one of the combination treadmill desks that have gained popularity in the marketplace.

This brings me to the first limitation: space! If you have a large scale treadmill then it is not going to have a small footprint. If you are going to be using one of these beasts upwards of four or five hours (or more) per day, then it darn well better be a workhorse or the motor and/or deck and/or belt are going to wear out very quickly.  So the big treadmill takes up space, and the desk itself can take up a lot of space as well.  The area that contains my treadmill desk takes up eight by seven feet and this doesn’t include any of the office peripherals such as bookshelves, printers, cabinets and so forth. While you may be able to get by with a smaller workspace and treadmill, most people want to have at least two monitors at their disposal, and therefore the larger workspace may be imperative.

Another limitation to the setup is the treadmill itself. Treadmills that are for runners and exercise are not designed to do long hours at slow speeds and the motors can burn out quickly, in particular if you have something like an orthopedic belt to soften your tread. If the treadmill deck is too narrow, or two short, drift may cause you to step on the rails and crash, not a pleasant experience. A good wide deck that is long enough to have your body close to half way back, in order to accommodate the desk, and a treadmill that can take hours of use every day at a low speed, is going to cost a pretty penny. At the same time, if you buy one that is not robust enough to handle the stress, it will burn out far sooner than desired and the expense of purchasing a new one is often cost prohibitive. There are some brands that have both treadmill and desk combined, with a treadmill that is built specifically for the long hours of use at a slow speed, and these, while expensive, are often the best solution.

Limitation number three, at least for me, is height. At 5’2” I am a bit vertically challenged, and my treadmill desk does not go low enough for me to work at a good ergonomic height. As such, I had to purchase a laptop that had a wide and comfortable keyboard that included the integrated touchpad in the center of the computer so I didn’t end up with carpel tunnel from repetitive motions, i.e., no mouse. That and sometimes my shoulders are touching my ears, not a good thing for ergonomic design. The large laptop and a smaller monitor next to it work well though, without me having to look down.

The final, but most limiting of limitations for me was repetitive use and the development of tendinitis in one of my feet.  Because I have a tendency to overdo things, I thought that if walking four hours a day felt so good, walking six hours a day would feel even better. At first it did. I lost weight, I felt great, my energy was superb, but within a year of having upped my walking to six, and sometimes seven hours a day, I developed a roaring case of tendinitis that sidelined me from walking for months. Now over a year after taking a couple months off, I cannot walk the way I used to without aggravating my tendinitis, and am happy walking only two or three hours a day, and nowhere near the speed I used to walk. Unfortunately the weight has come back, and with it, the feeling of sluggishness. That said, when I walk, I feel great, and my mind is clearer and I am able to concentrate better.

The limitations that I described above are all just cautionary for those who are thinking of a treadmill desk setup. Four years into using one, I cannot imagine returning to sitting for more than a couple of hours at a time, and hope to be able to use one of these desks until I decide to turn in the keyboard. Limitations that arise are nothing compared to the benefits that are gained in my opinion.

The treadmill desk is a magic pill to a stationary office worker, as long as moderation is used and forethought is exercised in setting up your workstation. Remember a good solid treadmill with a wide and long deck is key, and no orthopedic belts because they will burn out the motor faster. Think how you will use the desk, and make sure you have a place to sit in between periods on the treadmill because most of us cannot spend a full working day walking, without consequences.


Originally published with AppraiserNews in 2015

I am not “just” a residential appraiser

This article was originally posted in AppraisersBlogs ( and I am resharing as it needs repeating.  If you are searching for an appraiser to handle a residential assignment, look for someone with ample experience, who goes above and beyond the minimums related to education. There are countless appraisers out there who fit that bill, all you need to do is interview the appraiser about their education and experience related to the property, location, and intended use of the assignment.

View of Office Building

I am not “JUST” a residential appraiser!

There is no doubt that moving to obtaining a certified general appraisal license opens doors to varied and interesting work. If it is in one’s capacity to obtain this level, it is a great idea. That said, the idea of being “just” a residential appraiser has got to stop. A good professional residential appraiser who studies the market, knows how to analyze and solve a problem, and can communicate effectively and succinctly, is a very valuable appraiser at that!

As professional residential appraisers, we constantly work at honing skills. We work at becoming better appraisers every day, realizing that learning never ceases if one is open to it. As professional residential appraisers, we exceed minimum qualifications and minimum education requirements. Many of us have earned designations that take significant study and testing. Many of us spend a lot of time, money, and resources honing our skills and trying to improve every day. We work with most people’s largest single assets, and we are aware of that. We must be aware of nuances in buyer preferences, and how they change and evolve.  We must be very aware of what is happening in our markets and pay close attention to changes as they start to occur.

Homeowners hire us because they have a real need. They need to have someone who is independent, impartial, and objective help answer questions they have. They need someone who knows the market, knows how to analyze segments of the market, and who can present their findings in a way that makes sense and is usable, regardless of the opinion of value. Homeowners hire us to answer questions as varied as “what will this proposed addition add in terms of value” or “what will my value be after I split off five acres from my seven-acre tract of land” or “will it be cost effective for me to complete the list of improvements recommended by my REALTOR prior to listing my house for sale”? There is a myriad of reasons a homeowner would want to hire us directly to answer questions.

Attorneys hire us to answer questions as well. They might need to know what the value of a property was as of the date of a marriage in 1992, and what the current value is. They may need to hire us to address what a property would be worth if there was no construction defect, as well as with the defect indicated. They need someone who is not only independent, impartial and objective, but someone who is knowledgeable about retrospective valuation, or understands construction properly, and can complete a report based on both the as if value, and as is value.

As residential appraisers, we often come under extreme pressure. Pressure to ignore issues with a property, pressure to turn in assignments too quickly and to cut corners, pressure to meet sales prices that are too high, pressure to appraise lower than market value to accommodate some interest or another. For someone who is proud of their work ethic and quality, and is independent, impartial, objective and knowledgeable about the work they do and how to support it, we will never be “just” a residential appraiser. We will forever be standing up for doing our work the right way and not bending to pressures. This is the mark of a professional. This is the mark of someone who takes the profession seriously and understands how important our work is.

For those of us who treat being a residential appraiser seriously, and as a significant responsibility, we will never be “just” a residential appraiser. Think about that next time the word “just” crosses your mind. We must change this narrative from within. Be professional, be the best you can be. Be proud of being a residential appraiser. I know I am!

I have Google Earth and I know how to use it

Originally published in Appraisal Today, thank you Ann O’Rourke for allowing me to republish

I have Google Earth and I know how to use it

Seriously though, as a reviewer, it is one of the first tools I reach for when I look up the property that is the subject of the appraisal I am reviewing. Assume all reviewers do. We use it to make sure that the property does not back up to, side against, or face some type of externality such as a major 8-lane freeway, massive shopping mall or toxic waste facility. Hopefully the appraisal that has one of these externalities addresses it. Sometimes the appraisals go to great length to discuss externalities and any effect on marketability and value. Sometimes there is a sentence or two. Sometimes crickets.

Yesterday I pulled up GE on the house that was the subject of an appraisal I was reviewing and it backed up to a bunch of buildings. Looked possibly to be a school, but the street view maps took me around the side and to the entrance of what turned out to be a large condominium complex. Absolutely no big deal, but there wasn’t one single word related to this in the appraisal. I asked a group of appraisers whether they would make a comment if their subject property backed up to a condominium complex, and the responses ran the gamut from “of course”, to “no way, it is already covered in the neighborhood check boxes”.

While the check boxes for the neighborhood include multi-family, they do not include condominium, and in this instance, there was nothing in the appraisal even hinting that there was a mixture of single-unit uses in the area. This property didn’t raise a red-flag insomuch as backing to a freeway, commercial shopping center or toxic waste facility, but it did raise a question and warranted a bit more research. This is fine as it part of my job, but as someone who actually reads the reports in front of me, I was just left confused as to why it wasn’t even mentioned. I was even more confused by why so many appraisers say that it is not worth mentioning.

Maybe it is being old fashioned, but I grew up with the understanding that an appraiser was the eyes and the ears of the client, and that anything that would likely raise a question for the client should be addressed. Of course the freeway, mall and toxic waste facility are givens, but wouldn’t anything that was literally in the backyard also be something that would get questioned? How many minutes does it take out of the process to write a few sentences about a condominium complex? Couldn’t it be as simple as saying “The subject backs up to the XYZ condominium complex and has a seasonal view of some of these buildings. There is no negative effect on marketability or value of the subject property related to its location adjacent to this residential use” or some such rot?

While it is easy to overlook potential concerns due to the amount of reporting we have to do (and remember, there is no such thing as a perfect appraisal), stepping into the mind of the client and asking yourself “what would the client be concerned about” is a very useful exercise. While the client may not care about the house backing to a condominium complex because it is a residential use like the subject, they may care about it backing to the complex if for some reason it does affect marketability and/or value. It is up to us, as appraisers, to report and analyze what it is we see, and although we can never catch every little thing, our value is partly measured by our ability to communicate and to analyze these nuances.

Remember, reviewers have Google Earth and other tools at their fingertips, and most use them.

Courage of your convictions

Courage of your convictions


…….Or put your money where your mouth is

As an appraiser who works a very small area, and has for many years, I am fortunate to have quite good relationships with the agents in my community. Because of this, I get a lot of calls and emails asking for help when they run into situations with appraisals on their sales. Often the situation involves an appraisal that is under sales price where the agent is adamant that the appraisal is wrong.

Yesterday I had an email from an agent who told me that she had done her CMA and had arrived at an estimate of $325,000 for a sales price and that the house went under contract for $321,000, so pretty darn close to what her estimate was. The appraisal came back at $286,000 which is quite a bit lower than sales price, and the buyers and sellers were in negotiation to have the seller come down in price and the buyer bring more money to the table. The agent was adamant that the appraisal was faulty and used old sales that she did not think were appropriate. I offered to do a review of the appraisal as well as provide an opinion of value, all for a fee of course.

In this instance the agent balked and said that she didn’t want to spend the money; that the seller didn’t want to spend the money. My question is why? If you are convinced the appraisal is wrong, why not spend the money to either show that indeed the appraisal is wrong, or to provide a second opinion that the appraisal is actually correct? If there is $35,000 difference at stake, isn’t $500 or so for a second appraisal or review a worthwhile use of money? Or, is it possible that the reason that the agent didn’t want to spend the money, is in examination, that the appraisal might be fine?

What I really want to know from agents is why they don’t take the route of getting a second opinion from a local appraiser who knows the market well? If the review indicates there is a problem with the appraisal, then the agent can share it with the lender to see if there is recourse, such as a new appraisal, or a review from one of the lender panel appraisers. If the appraisal is shown to be fine, then there is a level of comfort that the agent and seller can have to negotiate, or move forward (or not) with the transaction.


Market snapshot – Ann Arbor/Saline

Market snapshot – comparing Ann Arbor and Saline


I admit it; I am a data junkie. There is something about graphs and charts that I just get all-geeked out about. Maybe it is simply having too much time on my hands, or maybe it is a thirst for knowledge (hoping for the latter, but with understanding it may be the former).

Without further ado, I offer my recent take on the comparison of two markets, because they often compete with each other.

The data below is run as one years’ worth of data at a time, but compared month over month (so if you see a comparison from June 2012 to June 2013 each of those sets has an entire years’ worth of data leading up to the date.  In this first graph, I have compared the cumulative days on the market of sales in Ann Arbor school district, as exposed through the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors MLS, compared to the same in Saline. I took all sales and looked at the median. In both segments, days on market declined to a low point in May/June 2013, and have since risen and then stabilized. Saline had longer median days on market but shows as stable compared to Ann Arbor, which is slightly increased over the past couple of months.


What about price?  On the median price, Saline is ahead of Ann Arbor. On median price per square foot, Ann Arbor is ahead of Saline. Why is this? It is related to median size. The median size of a house in the Saline market is greater than the median size of a house in the Ann Arbor market. As price per square foot is normally higher as size declines, it makes sense that you would see that.

If you compare month to month, for the past five months, the closed sales in the Ann Arbor market show as flat (although that is changing now) whereas Saline has been rising. If you skip down to the price per square foot, the rising prices in Saline are at a slower rate than just by the median price.



Inventory levels as of 4/8/14: Ann Arbor had 152 active offerings in total, compared to 1,176 sales the year before, or 1.55-months’ worth of inventory (not much). Saline had 50 offerings compared to 297 sales in the year prior, or 2.02 months’ worth of supply. In both instances, supply was quite limited, and this limited supply does appear to be driving many multiple offer situations.  In both markets, the contract-to-listing ratio shows as favoring seller’s, with Ann Arbor at 40.16% and Saline at 41.18% as of the 4/8/14 run date.

When the contract-to-listing ratio and low inventory favor sellers, prices typically increase. When they favor buyers, prices typically decrease. Markets are very fluid and changeable, and what is apparent a week ago, may well change dramatically a month from now. The market is sensitive to interest rates, employment rates, income changes, and national news, among other issues.


Appraisals are “opinions” of value by educated professionals. They are opinions based on factual data, but in the end of the opinion of a professional. Not all appraisers have equal qualifications and experience, and therefore not all opinions are equal. If you are shopping for an appraiser to help provide you an independent opinion of value, base your selection on the breadth and depth of that appraiser’s knowledge and experience, not the price of the appraisal assignment. After all, it is typically your largest investment, and does it make sense to be penny-wise and pound-foolish?

Rachel Massey,

Latest comparison to online valuation models

Latest comparison to online valuation models

It is quite frustrating to see how many people rely on these online value estimators to either price their home, or use it for marital dissolution, or other reasons. As will be shown in a minute, these can be off by a significant amount, either low or high.

I just ran sales in Ann Arbor, in the 48103 area for the past couple of weeks. I then compared the sales prices to two online value estimators and State Equalized Value times two. The only consistency to the information is that these online value estimators overestimated on houses in need of work and underestimated on those houses that were remodeled. In only a small percentage of cases, were the value tools within five percent of the actual sales price.


Appraisals are “opinions” of value by educated professionals. They are opinions based on factual data, but in the end of the opinion of a professional. Not all appraisers have equal qualifications and experience, and therefore not all opinions are equal.

If you are shopping for an appraiser to help provide you an independent opinion of value, base your selection on the breadth and depth of that appraiser’s knowledge and experience, not the price of the appraisal assignment. After all, it is typically your client’s largest investment, and does it make sense to be penny-wise and pound-foolish?

Rachel Massey,