A wealthy Pennsylvania couple who decide to end their marriage may face a singularly difficult obstacle in dividing their assets. In most cases, the family home is the most valuable asset that the couple possesses. Dividing such an asset may be extremely difficult because the parties may hold vastly different opinions about the value of the property and, if the marriage has lasted for 10 years or more, the asset may have appreciated in its value. One of the best ways to avoid unnecessary conflict is the retention of a professional appraiser to provide an opinion about the fair market value of the homestead.
The basics of the appraisal process
The appraiser’s basic job is to provide a written opinion about the fair market value under current market conditions. After the clients have signed a fee agreement with the appraiser, the appraiser will visit the property that is the subject of the appraisal (the “subject property” or “subject”). The appraiser will make a detailed inspection of both the exterior of the subject and the interior.
The appraiser will carefully measure the dimensions of all rooms and make detailed observations about the physical condition of the house. The appraiser will also note the existence of any improvements, such as a remodeled kitchen or bathroom or a custom-made owner’s suite.
The appraiser will also tour the adjacent neighborhood to determine to what extent the value of nearby homes may influence the value of the subject property.
The sales comparison approach to value
The appraiser’s next step is to select an approach to value; three approaches are commonly used in the appraisal of real estate: the income approach, the replacement cost approach, and the sales comparison approach. The first two are rarely used for residential properties because they do not yield a reliable estimate of fair market value. The sales comparison approach is most frequently used because it reflects any recent changes in the local real estate market.
The appraiser will gather information about the sale price of comparable properties that have changed hands in the last 12 months. Adjustments are made for any differences between the subject and comparable properties, such as amenities such as a new kitchen or theater room. The appraiser will then use his or her knowledge of the local real estate market to adjust the sale prices of the comparables to reflect the fair market value of the subject.
Report as to value
Once the appraiser has gathered the necessary and relevant data, he or she will prepare a written report containing the report as to fair market value. This report will be given to the client and the client’s attorney; a copy will also be provided to the adverse party and that party’s attorney. A copy may also be given to the judge.
With the appraisal report in hand, the divorcing couple has two main options: one of them can purchase the interest of the other, with the division of assets adjusted accordingly, or the couple can sell the house to a third party and divide the net proceeds.
The principal advantage of using an appraisal is the availability of a neutral opinion about the value of the homestead. Given the emotional attachment that most people form with their home, the availability of an impartial opinion as to value can go a long way toward eliminating much of the emotion involved in choosing a value for the family home.