Market Update

How do we value a house with a HUGE non-permitted addition?

What do appraisers do when there is an enormous non-permitted addition? Imagine a 1,300 sq ft house with a 1,000 sq ft addition. What the? Let’s talk about this.

Here are some things to consider:


  • A lack of permits causes uncertainty in real estate
  • Buyers usually expect a price discount
  • Appraisers need to think through many issues when there aren’t permits
  • Many appraisers are likely to use the original footprint when choosing comps (instead of blindly lumping in the extra space)
  • This is a complicated issue, which is why the post is longer


1) Uncertainty: Whenever a home has a substantial non-permitted addition, it’s like infusing the property with uncertainty. What I mean is every time a person does a refinance or sells, the lack of permits might not be seen the same way by buyers, lenders, real estate agents, and appraisers. So just because it sold without any problems in the past doesn’t mean it will sell without hiccups in the future. In short, people who buy homes like this need to understand they’re signing up for a future of uncertain escrows.

2) Expectation of a discount: My sense is most buyers are going to expect a price discount when there aren’t permits. I know, thanks Captain Obvious. Granted, in some areas a lack of permits might be normal, but in other places or price ranges a lack of permits can be a huge deal. If a house was increased from 1,300 sq ft to 2,300 sq ft though without permits, that’s a 77% change in size. I’d say that’s no small matter for marketability, so buyers aren’t likely to be okay with paying full price. On top of this, some lenders might not want to touch the property either. Anyway, I’d expect to see buyers wanting a discount, but technically I’m open to seeing otherwise because my job is to be objective rather than impose a rule that says, “Buyers will always pay less in this situation.”

3) Nuts and bolts: Appraisers have to ask whether an addition is legal based on zoning. If it’s flat-out illegal, the appraiser isn’t going to be recognizing value (or shouldn’t be). Keep in mind sometimes lenders instruct appraisers not to show value for non-permitted space. At the same time many lenders ask appraisers to simply support the value if the appraiser is assigning value to non-permitted features. In other words, lenders might say, “We’re cool if you give value to this, but support the value with comps or data.” I wrote more about some of the nuts and bolts of the problem of non-permitted additions here.

4) Assuming it’s no big deal: An appraiser could assume the market would pay the same amount for a 2,300 sq ft house compared to a 1,300 sq ft house with a 1,000 sq ft addition, but that’s a gigantic assumption. In my mind it would be a huge liability for an appraiser to blindly assume the market would have no problem and just appraise it like this was no big deal. There is simply too much uncertainty, so appraisers aren’t likely to walk out on a limb of liability like this without compelling data. In many cases buyers will ignore smaller-ticket items that aren’t permitted, but a 1,000 sq ft addition is a massive issue that cannot be ignored.

5) A starting place:

6) Previous sales: One thing I would look for is if this property sold on the open market in the past. If it sold more recently a few times at 2,300 sq ft and the market seemed to recognize this space as square footage (despite a lack of permits), that might be data for me to consider. In that case I might be more tempted to choose 2,300 sq ft comps while making some very heavy disclaimers about there being no permits. But if I only have one previous sale from 2005 when lending standards were loose and lots of properties sold at inflated levels, I’d probably give very little or no weight to that prior sale. The truth is we might look up previous sales and see the opposite too. Maybe a property is huge on paper, but that doesn’t mean buyers paid a huge price. Thus we might see proof in previous sales that buyers didn’t consider this house on the same level as other 2,300 sq ft homes. Here’s the thing though. No matter how the market responded in the past, it doesn’t mean the market would look at the property the same today. Moreover, what if fraud or incompetence was involved in the prior sales? Thus prior sales can be valuable, but at the end of the day I have to still make a judgment call about today.

7) Multiple offers: If this property was listed on the open market and there were ten offers when buyers were informed about a lack of permits, that might mean something. Offers aren’t sales, but it’s still data to consider. Yet if a property has been really attractive to buyers but it keeps falling out of escrow because of a substantial non-permitted addition, that’s also telling. So just because something is appealing and getting offers doesn’t necessarily mean value is there. If buyers are struggling to close, that’s probably more telling than initial offers, right?

8) It’s a puzzle: Properties like this are like a puzzle. I have to look at many factors and assemble the pieces together. So I’ll give strong weight to 1,300 sq ft comps, I’ll maybe use some 2,300 sq ft comps and adjust down if necessary, and I’ll do my best to find some other comps with permit issues. Additionally, if I get a sense of what it would cost to permit the area, that’s at least worth considering and it might help me come up with some sort of adjustment down. My knee-jerk reaction is to think buyers at the least would deduct the cost to get it permitted (and realistically probably more). Lastly, I’d interview lots of agents and talk with appraiser colleagues too. This would help me sharpen my focus, give ideas for how to approach the property, or maybe even shed light on comps.

It’s not the appraiser’s fault: I know it’s frustrating to not give a quick solution for valuing a property like this, but there isn’t one. Let’s remember the uncertainty in valuing only exists because someone didn’t get permits.

I hope this was interesting or helpful.


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