The quest for the perfect comp
Some weeks Tommey Allen spends more time behind the wheel than a long-haul trucker.
It’s not all driving time though. Most of it is just idling along the curb, parked on the roadside and sitting in driveways. Over the past two years, Allen and the rest of the Macon County appraisal team have scouted every inch of road — paved, gravel, dirt or otherwise — to size up all 44,000 parcels of property and ultimately make a prognostication of what they’re worth.
“It can be overwhelming,” Allen said.
“Yeah, it can get overwhelming at times,” agreed Kaine Matthews, another county appraiser. “One challenge is getting to the houses.”
That is often easier said than done, especially when there’s only a construction road leading to it, or it’s hanging off the side of a cliff.
Sluggish sales have been the main enemy for the appraisal team in the latest countywide revaluation. There simply wasn’t enough property being bought and sold to establish a baseline in the real estate market. Appraisers peg the value of a house or lot by comparing it to similar houses and lots that have actually sold. But when real estate sales screeched to a halt in the late 2000s, there weren’t enough sales to set that baseline.
“If you ain’t got comps ….” said Richard Lightner, Macon’s head tax administrator, using the real estate slang for “comparable sales.”
Of the limited sales being recorded, prices were all over the map.
“They have been fluctuating widely,” Lightner said.
And many were suspect. Appraisers had to sort out which were an accurate picture of real world values and which to discount. Foreclosures were the biggest wrench in the works.
Macon County was awash in foreclosures of all kinds following the bust: large-scale developers went bankrupt, fly-by-night contractors flew the coop, wanna-be retirees jettisoned their second-homes when their 401Ks tanked, upside down working families begged for loan workouts.
On top of foreclosures were the short sales and firesale auctions, which couldn’t be counted as comps either.
“You find out if there are any outliers and take out all the distressed sales and determine if it is a valid arms-length transaction,” said Matthews.
They had to keep their ear to the ground in the real estate world, and regularly called on Realtor friends for insight on whether a particular sale was legit or distressed.
But once they weeded the distressed ones out, there weren’t enough sales to set a baseline.
The reval was initially supposed to happen in 2011. But Lightner successfully made a case to county commissioners to postpone it for four years, in hopes the market would turn around some.
It gave Lightner and his team some breathing room, and the gamble paid off. An uptick materialize in the past two years, just in the nick of time to pull off the delayed reval.
“We are finally getting away from the foreclosure sales and have new sales we can actually use to establish the market value,” Matthews said.