Todd Huttunen began appraising more than 20 years ago with a few years off in between to pursue a career in cabinet making. He relegated that to hobby status and is currently an appraiser in an assessor’s office. His best friend dubbed him The Hall Monitor because of his rigidity and respect for rules. He offers Matrix readers tongue-in-groove insight on appraisal and housing issues. View his earlier handiwork on my first blog, Soapbox 
In estimating the value of a house, appraisers are concerned with answering two fundamental questions.
1 – What is the value of the land, as vacant?
2 – What contribution, if any, does the existing improvement make to the underlying value of the land?
A recent study  (pdf) conducted by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy  suggests that in the higher priced regions of the country, the land-to-value ratios range from 50% to 75%. In areas where “teardowns” are common, land values can actually exceed 100%, since the buyer looking to construct a new house has to add the cost of demolition to the price paid for the existing house before she can build the new one.
Although this is the reality in many parts of the New York metropolitan area, Boston, Southern California, and other regions, for a long time now banks and the appraisers who work for them have pretended otherwise. For some reason banks want to believe that the mortgages they make are on properties where the land represents between 25% and 35% of the market value and that the improvement represents the bulk of the value, 65% to 75%. Even as far back as 1985 when I started appraising and the land-to-value ratios were not as high as they are today, we were required to add a comment to our reports stating that “land values in excess of 30% of market value are common in this area,” whenever we estimated land value above that “magic number”.
Appraisers I’ve spoken to say the reason they estimate land values at say, 30 – 35% of overall value, irrespective of the fact that it may be much greater, is that they are under pressure from lenders and underwriters who won’t approve loans on properties whose land-to-value ratio is more than roughly one-third. Conventional wisdom says banks don’t want to make loans on land, so they instruct their appraisers to say the land is 30 – 35% of market value (the fact that it may really be 80 – 90% doesn’t seem to bother them, as long as the appraiser says otherwise). The reality however, based on this Land to Value Ratios study from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, is that in many of the country’s higher priced locations, it is the land which comprises 50% to 75% or more of the value of the property.
This is important for a couple of reasons, one of which is the fact that appraisal forms are geared toward the notion that most of the value is in the improvement, and not the land. The adjustment grid, wherein the appraiser compares the subject property to the comparable sales, gives short shrift to factors relating to the land value and focuses instead on the improvements such as square footage of the house, number of bedrooms and baths, condition, and on the amenities such as fireplaces, patios and pools. Most of the dollar adjustments appraisers make are for differences in the improvements and amenities. But if 75% of the value is in the land, then why are we bothering to make an adjustment for the fact that one property has a fireplace and the other does not? Shouldn’t the focus be on factors relating to the land instead? These would include site size, shape, views, elevations, topography, frontage, etc.
Appraisers have been subject to scrutiny in recent years, given their role in the mortgage lending process, and some have been implicated for their unethical participation in the sub-prime debacle. I believe most appraisers are ethical, professional, and serious about the work they do. But I do think it’s time to recognize reality when it comes to the allocation of value between land and improvements. If the land value represents 50% or 75% or 100% of the value of the property, as it does in many parts of the country, then appraisers have an obligation to their clients to say so in their reports. And if that means the appraisal form itself needs to be redesigned to reflect the market as it is now, and not as it was in 1930, so be it.
Editor’s note: I find it amazing how so few consumers realize that changes in value during a period like we just went through is in the land, not the building (improvements) – jjm.