There's a common dilemma I've always had to wrestle with when buying vacant land. The issue boils down to valuation.
Land is a peculiar type of real estate because in the vast majority of cases, it is EXTREMELY difficult to come up with a rock-solid, 100% reliable “market value” for this type of property (ask a professional real estate appraiser and chances are, they're basically “winging it” in this area, because the data just isn't there).
So how are we supposed to have ANY confidence in the value of what we're buying? I've always maneuvered through this process by following the guidelines in this blog post, which I've found points to a reasonably strong conclusion – but if you're looking for even more of a quantitative, measurable approach with which to gauge land values, I wanted to share with you an EPIC new trick I just learned about from Karl James, one of our faithful members in the REipster Forum.
Karl uses a similar approach to the one I use to find sales comps on Zillow, but he goes one step further by analyzing the data with MUCH greater mathematical precision.
Karl uses Redfin, which provides much of the same information as Zillow, but Redfin allows users to download all the sales comp data in a CSV file. This may not seem significant at first glance, but trust me – it opens up all kinds of possibilities when it comes to analyzing the numbers and putting this data to work.
Here's how the process works…
If you'd rather follow along at your own pace with screenshots of each step, feel free to use the images below instead…
For this example, let's assume we've got a random lead on a vacant lot in the Lake Las Vegas area of Henderson, NV. Let's start by going to Redfin and searching for comparable listings and sales.
In the “Find a Home” dialog box, type: Lake Las Vegas, NV. When Redfin suggests Lake Las Vegas; Henderson, NV in the area below the text box, click on it.
Redfin will then show a satellite map of Lake Las Vegas with the city limits of Henderson, NV outlined in red. The outline can be helpful for showing comparable properties within the city limits of a particular town, feel free to turn this off (as it can also get it the way, and isn't always relevant when finding legitimate comps.
Next, click on the Filters button near the top middle of the screen. Once the Filters dialog box pops up, do this:
- Deselect all of the “Property Type” options other than Land.
- Select all of the options under “Include” and set the time period for Sales to “Last 3 years” from the drop-down list (if using “Last 3 years” on sales returns way too may results, feel free to throttle it back to something less).
- Click the “Update Search” button.
Now you should see something like this on the left-hand side of the screen. It shows some properties southwest of the lake and a number of properties near the lake.
We want to get comps for a lot near the lake, so now we can use the “+/-” buttons to zoom in on the map and click and hold the mouse button to drag the map area to get just what we want to see in the left-most window.
The map window has icons showing listings and sales (the blue icons are sales, the green ones are active listings).
If you click on one of the property icons on the map, you'll see a few things:
- The address for the property is shown to the left of the icon.
- Summary details for the property are shown on the top right side of the screen.
- The property is highlighted among the list of properties on the right side of the screen.
- If you click on “More” in the summary detail area, you'll get more details…
The detail page for each property includes a wealth of information, including sold date.
You can also check out the “Property History” tab for information like the initial listing date and price, price changes, and transaction dates.
Head back to the previous page and scroll down to the bottom of the properties list on the right-hand side of the screen using the slide bar.
When you get to the bottom, click on the “Download All” link. This will create a CVS file which can be opened in Excel with sales and listing information.
Step 9 (the longest one):
When you download your CSV file, it will look something like this…
When you get to the point of downloading the CSV file and making sense of the data, you'll have to make a few edits to the list in Excel (Note: I went through these steps in the video above, starting at 4:30, but I also wanted to lay out the steps to this process below – just to make it easier to follow along):
a) Start by deleting all (vertical) columns except for the following:
- List Price
- Lot Size
- Original List Price
- Last Sale Date
- Last Sale Price
Also, if you see any (horizontal) rows that have blank fields, delete those rows.
b) Then add two (vertical) columns after the “Lot Size” column and name them as follows:
- $ / Acre
c) Add the following calculation into the first field in the “Acres” column:
Assuming that Column C is showing the “Lot Size” (which is measured in square feet), this formula will take each of the corresponding lot size numbers and convert them to acres (note: 1 acre = 43,560 square feet).
d) Add this following formula into the “$ / Acre” column:
Assuming that Column I is showing the “Last Sale Price” and Column B is showing the “List Price“, this formula is telling Excel to divide the “Last Sale Price” of each property by the “Acres” in size.
Note: If the field for “Last Sale Price” happens to be blank (i.e. – if it's an active listing), then it will calculate the dollars per acre based on the property's current list price (rather than a non-existent sale price). Granted, the current list price is usually less reliable, but it's still the next best option nonetheless.
e) Scroll to the bottom of your “$ / Acre” column and enter the following formula:
Note: In this example, “E30” happens to be the last field in my list. You should replace this number with whatever the last field in YOUR list happens to be (see the video above at 10:30 to see what I'm talking about).
In the end, your reformatted list will look more like this:
So what do these calculations do for us?
They tell us how many dollars per acre were paid for each property.
Using this information, you can then compare and contrast it to the property you're looking at. If you aren't sure what the value per acre is, these numbers could give you a much better idea of what general range you should be looking at.
Admittedly, getting to the end of this process does require a higher caliber thought process (it's not quite as elementary as my basic Zillow approach), but as I'm sure you can see (if you've made it this far), these extra steps can add a lot more clarity to the land values in your target area.
It should go without saying that this isn't a fool-proof method. It's important to remember that with any property, the size and location of the land you're looking at is of utmost importance (e.g. – a 1-acre property on a beautiful lake is going to be more valuable than a 1-acre property next to a landfill).
This approach also doesn't account for a host of other things that can have an effect on a property's market value (take these things for instance). That being said – if you have no idea where to start and you're not willing to put your trust in the county's assessed value – this is a great way to use some highly relevant, real-world data to use as a gauge to nail down a property's approximate market value before you make an offer.
Have fun with it!