Deciphering the Comparative Market Analysis

A home’s price can depend on many factors, including where it’s located, when it’s listed for sale and whether it has updated interiors. So, how do you figure out how much your property is worth is before it’s placed on the market?

The first rule of thumb is to ask your real estate agent for a comparative market analysis, or CMA, that estimates a home’s value based on the recent sales of similar real estate in the area.

Whether you’re hoping to buy a house or sell one, understanding the CMA is essential. Here, realtor.com details everything home buyers and sellers need to know.

CMA explained

Real estate agents create CMAs by looking at comparables, or comps—recently sold properties that are similar to your own home (or, if you’re a home buyer, the one on which you want to make an offer).

Say your own home has three bedrooms, two baths and is around 2,000 square feet, and your neighbor’s down the block also is a three-bedroom, two-bath house coming in at 1,950 square feet—and it sold last week for $300,000.

Odds are, your place is worth about that same price. Comparable homes should be in the same or similar neighborhood, have similar square footage, number of bedrooms, baths, features, and upgrades.

But since most houses are at least a little unique, how identical do they need to be? Comps should ideally have the same number of bedrooms and baths, be located within a quarter-mile of your home, and within 200 square feet of your home’s size.

Whenever possible, they also should be in your ZIP code and school district. It’s equally important to make sure your CMA analyzes recent sales.

Markets can change quickly, so don’t go back any more than six months. Another mistake? Looking at listing prices on homes and assuming those are realistic comps.

Those numbers may be inflated based on home sellers’ hopes of what they’ll get rather than reality or may be underpriced to generate more interest. Bottom line: CMAs should take into account the final sales prices of homes.

The more comps you use, the better you can triangulate a home’s price, but if you have at least three comparable, recently sold properties, you should be able to average out their prices and get a good sense of what a given home is worth.

Why to ask real estate agents for CMAs

Most real estate agents will provide you with a CMA for free, especially if you are selling your home. Most agents should be happy to email you a CMA before you even sit down to have a conversation. Consider it a good kickoff to your working relationship.

Most agents should be happy to email you a CMA before you even sit down to have a conversation. Consider it a good kickoff to your working relationship.

How to do your own comparative market analysis

While your real estate agent can do a CMA for you, you also might want to do your own analysis. You can find comps by searching for recent home sales in your area on listing sites such as realtor.com.

One way to quickly assess how much a house is worth is to use an online home value estimator. You plug in an address, and within seconds, a computer algorithm will scan comps, crunch the numbers, then deliver an estimate of how much the house in question is worth.

While online home value calculators are a great starting point, they aren’t the end all, be all. Like any fully automated tool, they can’t take everything into consideration that a human could. Consider it your springboard for further research you or a real estate agent can explore further.

Taking condition into consideration

OK, so you’ve found your recently sold comps, and hopefully they match up with the property you’re analyzing. The more nuanced bit is taking things like condition, lot size, extras and curb appeal into consideration. For example, you can’t compare a fixer-upper to something with lots of upgrades.

Ideally, you will be able to find comps in a similar condition to the house you’re trying to price—but if not, be wary of just adding the full cost of your remodeling to a home’s price. In other words, just because you spent $10,000 installing an in-ground pool does not mean home buyers are willing to pay you $10,000 more.

On average, homeowners should expect to make back only about 56 percent of the money they spend on renovations, and that return on investment varies widely based on what you do.

Also try to find comps with a similar home style. Some market knowledge is harder to DIY. Every area will have different things that are desirable, and upgrades and extras will be worth more in some areas than others.

Going beyond comps

Still not sure you’ve done enough homework? Another tactic to further hone your CMA is to ask your real estate agent to contact other agents to get the scoop on homes that are in escrow. 

Getting the inside scoop can give you an edge with pricing, and give you a heads-up about potential bumps down the road. For example, did a comparable home have multiple offers? Did the buyer have any appraisal issues?

Did the seller have to give any concessions to push the deal through? All of this can give you an up-to-the-minute snapshot of where the market is headed. It also can explain strange or lowball comps that pop up, throwing off your price.

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