Refinancing? Ace the Appraisal with This Comprehensive Guide

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So you’re looking to refinance your home to take advantage of today’s low interest rates. Before you get started, you need to understand the process, and part of that is getting an appraisal for your home — a licensed appraiser’s assessment on your property’s fair market value.

When you refinance, your lender requires a fresh appraisal for your home to determine your home’s current value and your equity (the market value of the property that you own, minus the amount you owe on your loan). These figures influence your:

  • Refinance eligibility
  • Insurance requirements
  • Interest rates
  • Ability to cash-out refinance

The appraisal process can be nerve-wracking — but don’t fret. We’ll walk you through it step-by-step. We interviewed three professionals to provide you with a detailed overview of refinancing appraisals.

An updated living room which will increase an appraisal for a home.
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Appraisals 101: How appraisers determine your home value

First, let’s touch on some appraisal basics. An appraisal is an assessment of your property to determine its fair market value. A licensed appraiser compares your property’s characteristics to recently sold homes in the area (aka comparable homes or “comps”) to evaluate its worth.

To determine the market value, the appraiser weighs your home against at least three recent comparable sales. “Appraisals need a sandwich, meaning a [comparable] sale higher and a sale lower than the likely appraised value,” says Ed Kaminsky, a top real estate agent in Los Angeles, California, who has 34 years of experience and almost 1,000 transactions under his belt.

During an appraisal, a licensed appraiser analyzes how the following property characteristics stack up against those of comparable homes:

  • Property size
  • Property type (e.g., single-family home, condominium, etc.)
  • Location
  • Condition of home structure and grounds
  • Recent home improvements
  • Desirability of finishes and features
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The new appraised value impacts your LTV when you refinance

The appraisal is a critical step in refinancing because the appraised value is a key factor in determining a home’s loan-to-value (LTV) ratio. LTV helps quantify the amount of risk a lender takes on a loan, which directly impacts how much the lender is willing to loan for the new mortgage.

To calculate a home’s LTV, divide the loan amount by the home’s appraised value. For example, a $280,000 loan secured by a $350,000 house has an LTV of 80%.

The lower the LTV, the lower the risk for the lender. One way to see a drop in your LTV? A bump in your appraised value.

Your appraised value affects how much you can borrow

Each mortgage lender and loan program follows a set of underwriting guidelines that includes a maximum LTV. The appraised value determines whether your proposed loan amount qualifies under these lender guidelines.

If you refinance a $200,000 loan and your lender requires a maximum LTV of 80%, your home would need to appraise for at least $250,000 ($250,000 X 0.8 = $200,000). If your home appraises for less, you would need to lower your loan amount to qualify.

To calculate the maximum your lender may be willing to loan you based on your appraised value, ask your loan rep about the maximum LTV for your loan program. Then multiply that LTV percentage by your appraised value.

If your lender is willing to lend up to 80% of your home’s value and your home appraises for $500,000, you could qualify for a loan amount of up to $400,000 ($500,000 X 0.8). 

Your appraised value impacts how much you can cash out in equity

In a similar vein, LTV affects the amount you could pull out of your home with a cash-out refinance. The higher your appraised value, the more you’ll be able to cash out. That’s because the higher your value above what you owe the lender, the lower your LTV ratio.

“With home values increasing over the country, many homeowners are taking advantage of the refinance option to lower their interest rates or pull some cash out for home improvements or their other immediate needs,” comments Desari Jabbar, a top real estate agent in DeKalb County, Georgia with 22 years of experience.

Let’s say your lender has a cash-out refinance LTV cap of 75%. You owe $100,000 on your current loan, and you want to cash out $150,000 for a new loan amount of $250,000. In order to qualify, your home would need to appraise for at least $333,333 (75% of $333,333 equals $250,000). 

But if your home appraises for less, say $320,000, you would only qualify for a $240,000 loan amount. That would reduce your cash-out amount by $10,000.

With a low LTV, you might be able to refinance at a reduced rate

If you have enough equity in your property, you may be able to upgrade to a mortgage with better terms and a lower interest rate. For example, a lender may offer a lower interest rate if you have a 50% LTV compared to a homeowner with an 80% LTV. There’s less risk to the lender the lower the LTV ratio.

The appraised value can determine whether your lender requires mortgage insurance

Tired of paying private mortgage insurance (PMI)? When you refinance, your appraised value determines whether or not you’ll continue paying insurance on your loan. Lenders typically require insurance when a borrower’s LTV exceeds 80%. If your appraised value falls short, your LTV may not drop low enough to remove the lender’s PMI requirement (and with a LTV above 80%, you may not qualify for a refinance at all).

Let’s say you’re refinancing a $225,000 loan. At the time, your home value was $250,000, for an LTV of 90%. The lender required PMI. To refinance to a new $225,000 loan and avoid PMI, the appraiser would need to assign a value of at least $281,250 to your home for an 80% LTV.

An acceptable appraised value is only one factor when refinancing

Your home equity must be sufficient for you to refinance your home. For most refinance loans, your property’s appraised value must exceed your mortgage balance by anywhere from 3% to 20%, depending on the type of refinance you are hoping to complete. Here’s a list of other refinancing eligibility requirements:

  • Your current mortgage must be in good standing. If you have skipped payments, you need to get caught up to refinance.
  • Your credit score must qualify. The minimum credit score to refinance is typically 580 to 680.
  • You need to meet the minimum ownership period. Some lenders impose a minimum waiting period to refinance after you purchase your home.
  • Your debt-to-income ratio cannot be too high. If you have taken out other loans or have high credit card debt, you may not be able to refinance.
  • You need enough money to pay for the closing costs. Refinance closing costs typically range between 3% to 6% of the mortgage principal, according to the Federal Reserve.
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When refinancing, the appraisal cost falls on the homeowner

When refinancing, the homeowner covers the cost of the appraisal. Typically, the appraisal fee is included in the closing costs for the loan. Taylor Beerbower, a certified residential appraiser in Connecticut with over 30 years of experience and founder of Mulberry Street Appraisals, estimates that most homeowners pay between $300 and $800 in appraisal fees. This cost varies depending on location, property type, and appraisal complexity.

Refinancing appraisal timeline

Once the lender assigns an appraiser to your home, it can take two days to a month for the professional to schedule and conduct the appraisal. Beerbower notes that the timeline depends on how busy the market is, adding that he’s currently working two to four weeks out.

When the appraisal is complete, the appraiser then submits the report to the lender to review and determine how much they’re willing to refinance the property for.

The appraisal report expires in 60 to 90 days, depending on the lender and speed of the market, according to Thomas Wohl, a top real estate agent in Wake County, North Carolina, with over 28 years of experience. “The market is switching so much. The appraisal will be different three months ago than it is today,” he comments.

A car driving by a house to do an appraisal for a home.
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Types of appraisals for homes when refinancing

There are several types of home appraisal methods for refinancing. Beerbower shares that many banks use a management company to select the appraiser and type of appraisal to keep the process as objective as possible.

Traditional appraisal

In-person appraisals are still the most popular method, according to our experts. In a traditional appraisal, a licensed appraiser walks through the property to assess its value. The appraisal can take between 15 minutes to three hours, depending on the size of the property and if there are any special circumstances. The appraiser then puts together an appraisal report based on their observations and analysis of comparable homes.

Exterior-only (a.k.a “drive-by”) appraisal

When a lender assigns a drive-by appraisal, the appraiser evaluates a home in a similar manner as a traditional appraisal, but with one major difference: The appraiser never steps into the home. Instead, they observe and photograph only the home’s exterior.

Desktop appraisal

With a desktop appraisal, the appraiser evaluates a property’s value using online data without ever stepping into the home. The appraiser relies on property data, including tax records and information listed on the multiple listing service (MLS), along with recent photos submitted by the homeowner.

Hybrid appraisal

In a hybrid appraisal, a third party (a second appraiser, a real estate licensee, or another authorized person) comes to the home and performs the field inspection instead of the assigned appraiser. The third party submits the appraisal report to the assigned appraiser who is responsible for analyzing the property information and ultimately determining the home’s fair market value.

Broker’s price opinion (BPO)

A lender may order a BPO where a real estate agent evaluates a property’s value rather than a licensed appraiser. Jabbar says while a BPO is not considered a true appraisal, the lender can use it to determine the value of the home and inform loan eligibility.

A house having an appraisal in order to get refinancing.
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Tips for a successful appraisal for refinancing

The appraiser’s goal is to fairly and impartially determine the home’s value. While most of the appraisal process is out of your hands, there are steps you can take to ensure the best possible appraisal for your home:

Give the appraiser some breathing space

Following them from room to room, pointing out the new faucet you installed two years ago and every LED light fixture you added, could slow down their process and potentially aggravate the appraiser. Instead of hovering, let the appraiser know you’re available for questions after their walk-through. This gives the appraiser a chance to see your home and take notes without distraction.

Provide the appraiser a shortlist of recent comparable homes

As a homeowner, chances are you keep an eye on what goes on in your neighborhood, including when a neighbor sells. While the appraiser will check public records and MLS reports when selecting comparables, these records may not have the most updated information. Or the appraiser could unintentionally overlook a nearby home that sold for well above the asking price.

Try finding comparables that are less than three months old, located within a few miles from your home, have a similar square footage, and are of similar age. While it’s the appraiser’s discretion as to whether or not they use your suggested comparables, the list could prove useful when they sit down to type up the appraisal report. If you’re unsure about how to pick comparables, reach out to your real estate agent for advice.

Clean and declutter

A deep clean and declutter will not only allow the appraiser to access different areas of your home, but it will give the appraiser the impression that you keep it maintained — an element the appraiser considers when determining its value.

Resolve visible deferred maintenance

Is the paint chipping on your front door? Have you been meaning to repair the back window that shattered last month? Repair these items before your appraisal appointment. The overall condition and quality of your home can impact your appraisal.

Let the appraiser know about recent changes you’ve made to the house

In addition to maintenance items, recent projects that improve the quality of your home can impact your appraisal. Provide the appraiser with a list of home improvements, repairs, or upgrades you have made. Also include supporting documentation, such as receipts or a cost estimate.

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