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An appraisal is performed by a specialist professional, and is designed to establish what the house you are refinancing is actually worth to a level of detail and accuracy that will satisfy a lender. Appraisers have to complete licensing coursework to be licensed in their state, and they have to have no connection to anyone involved, not to the owner (if refinancing) or the buyer or seller (if buying).
A CMA (Competitive Market Analysis) is not an appraisal. Your real estate agent may run a CMA on the house you’re considering to estimate its value and help you determine what to offer for the house. CMAs are much simpler and are not as accurate.
A home inspection is also not the same thing as an appraisal. A home inspector doesn’t care how much the home is worth so much as how much work it needs to improve it (or in some cases make it habitable).
Appraised value is not the same as assessed value (what the government says your house is worth) or market value (what you are actually paying). The three figures should be close together, but they are not always the same. However, an appraisal can help you dispute inaccurate property tax assessments and win.
Types of approaches
There is the sales comparison approach, which compares the home to other homes.
There is also the cost approach, which accounts for the replacement cost of the home. Builders often use this type of appraisal to set their prices. For all but new homes, sales comparison is the best approach.
The appraiser will do a walk-through of the home, and look at its features. They will take into account everything from the age of the carpets to the angle of the driveway. They will compare the house to other properties for sale, and may also look at those properties to do a more detailed comparison. They will also do some of the same things realtors do when setting prices, such as looking at the market data for the local area.
Try to be there for the appraisal walk-through. Your lender can’t talk to the appraiser, but you can. The seller might also talk to the appraiser as it is also in their interest to not have an appraisal that is too low.
When they are done, the appraiser will provide a report to the lender which lists the appraised price, and all of the things which add and remove value.
Appraisals are essential, no lender is going to give you a loan without one. You should budget to pay a few hundred dollars for the appraisal. As you are the one paying, you have a bit of leverage on which appraiser is used, use it.