By Cale Pickford
For Winter 2023 Maine Realtor Magazine
Real estate agents know that valuing and pricing a home is more art than science. In most parts of the country, this question is a lot easier to answer, as homogenous homes in cookie-cutter subdivisions create a commodity-like price environment while homes in Maine are much more often one-of-a-kind assets.
The classic market-based answer to the question of value is that something is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. To get there, real estate agents look at recent comparable sales but often agents go with their gut, using recent sales and market momentum as a guide.
The seller’s situation can also guide pricing. I would argue that the art of valuing the home is the most important role that the real estate agent plays in both the buy and sell side of the transaction.
Valuing a home from an insurance perspective is a different, but no less important job, and in many cases just as subjective. Insurance agents look to insure homes at the cost to replace new, assuming a total loss. Generally, you’d also add in the cost to demolish the damaged structure and dispose of the debris. If the market value of a home and the replacement value of the home are the same, that is purely coincidence.
Now, how do insurance agents get to the correct valuation?
All insurance agents have access to replacement cost estimating software. The agent fills in data about the home such as building shape, square footage, year built, basement type, number of bathroom and so on. The agent can select grades from drop down menus to assign the quality of the construction. These options range from basic contractor grade to custom luxury, with several grades in between. Agents can also fill in fields for flooring, built ins, extra features, with thousands of options and exponentially more combinations. The downside with this software is that it is only as good as the assumptions built into it by the developer and it probably works best with newer, modern built homes in regions with developer-based construction. Still, this is an important tool.
Conversations with local contractors and architects
These are the professionals who have the real time information. They know exactly what their material, labor and subcontractor costs are, and that information is always going to be more regionally accurate. Most builders and architects can break down the cost to rebuild in a per square foot number and the agent can use that as a range to overlay with the valuation report generated by the replacement cost software.
Valuation specialists working with insurers
Insurers are paying the claims, so they have a lot of data on hand about the cost to replace a home. Many insurers have specialists in-house or they work with third-party inspectors to inspect homes and perform their own replacement cost analysis. A diligent agent will have a conversation with the insurer before issuing coverage to make sure they are comfortable with the replacement cost number. Working with an insurer who inspects the home (almost always after the policy is issued) should provide peace of mind to the homeowners that a professional has seen their home, documented its unique features and come up with their own cost to replace.
With all these tools at the insurance agent’s disposal, coming up with an accurate replacement cost number is still part science and part art. A diligent agent will always err on the high side because a homeowner does not plan to have an insurance claim. When you’re building a new home, you can work within the contractor’s schedule and perhaps even get several bids and select the lowest option. This is usually not the case following an insurance loss. Also, historic homes cost far more to replace than the equivalent modern home due to unique materials, dimensional lumber, and custom finishes. The best tip for homeowners is to work with an independent agent who understands the importance of being properly insured and has the expertise to work collaboratively with the homeowner to get there.
Top tip: Look for insurance policies that offer guaranteed replacement cost coverage. A guaranteed policy is a promise to rebuild regardless of the limit of coverage: essentially unlimited. If that is not available opt for one that provides extended replacement cost, usually expressed as a percentage of the dwelling limit on the policy: for example, 125% or 150% extended replacement cost.