Maybe selling your home is part of your two-year or five-year plan. Or perhaps you’re curious whether you should put it on the market sooner. Whatever the case, if you live in your home for a while, you’re no doubt curious about how its value stacks up. Too bad there isn’t a way to “test drive” what you’d fetch for an asking price in the same way you try out a car before you buy or have a trial period for that fitness app to gauge whether you like it enough to stick with it.

Actually, there is. A real estate agent performs a comparative market analysis, or CMA, before your home hits the market to help arrive at a decent asking price. It’s also a helpful tool for homeowners who might be considering some renovations and wonder what the return on investment might be for adding that deck or upgrading the master bath.

But how much does a comparative market analysis cost? Is there such a thing as a free CMA, with no strings attached? Let’s look closer at CMAs so that you won’t feel awkward or nervous about asking for one, even at no cost.

Money used to pay for a comparative market analysis.
Source: (Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash)

What does a CMA cost?

Some agents charge from $100 to $200 for a CMA, says George Herring, a top real estate agent and single-family homes expert serving the Dallas, Texas, area. But Herring doesn’t charge anything. In fact, many agents advertise free CMAs as part of their marketing. Some agents will even include CMAs when they mail out fliers to certain subdivisions on a regular basis to drum up business.

“I do free CMAs for people all the time,” says Herring.

What does a CMA involve?

A CMA compares raw data about your home with about 10 properties that are comparable in location, size, and other factors. These properties are known as “comps.” The agent searches the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) for current and previous listings over the past three to six months, depending on market conditions. They’re looking for how long homes like yours took to sell and the difference between their list prices and their sale prices.

“The idea is to try to find a similar product in upgrades, age, and square footage … You want to only go 500 square feet above and below the subject property, and then if you have enough examples, you squeeze that in even further,” Herring says. “That’s kind of why you stick with the same subdivision if you can because obviously, they’re going to be of similar finish.”

In addition to square footage and the number of bedrooms and baths, a CMA will include any amenities the comparable properties have, such as a swimming pool, as well as any less-tangible factors such as whether a home is close to noisy streets.

How hard is it for an agent to put together a CMA?

For a seasoned real estate agent, it’s not difficult at all. Herring says he can compile one in about 20 minutes or less. “The CMA is a line-item analysis of the home compared to other homes in the area,” he says. In his office, the CMA includes the following for the subject property and its comps:

  • The MLS number
  • Address
  • Number of bedrooms and bathrooms
  • Square footage
  • Amenities such as a pool
  • Price per square foot

It also includes the sold date, the sale price as a percentage of the list price, and the days on market.

He also includes what he calls a “comparables report” — again at no charge — with additional information such as details and photos of the other homes’ upgrades.

With all that work, can I really get a free CMA?

A CMA is how an agent arrives at a listing price, and they provide CMAs as part of their listing services. So yes, you can get a free CMA, even if you’re not ready to sell at the moment.

Brent Dalley, a top-selling real estate agent in Dallas, likens consulting a real estate agent for a CMA to checking your bank balance or your investment portfolio. They’re all tools to evaluate your assets.

“Although it may be uncomfortable if you’re not currently planning to sell, the best way to get a solid valuation for your home is through an experienced agent who’s up to date on today’s marketplace,” he says.

Herring agrees, noting that he recently ran a CMA and a comparables report for a client who wanted to list their home for $30,000 above what the agent thought the market would bear. His data convinced the homeowner to set a lower but more competitive price.

“You really have to have [the CMA] in order to make an educated decision as far as whether you want to sell your house in its current condition, or does it make sense for you to spend $30,000 to renovate your kitchen and your master bath? And hopefully, you could get $55,000 back,” he says. “Last thing you want to do is spend a bunch of money and not have it do any good for the home.”

An aerial view of a home being built.
Source: (Avel Chuklanov / Unsplash)

CMA vs. appraisal

The home appraisal and CMA are aligned in their goal to nail down the fair market value of a home. In fact, the most common way appraisers value a home is with the “sales comparison” approach, which shares procedural steps with the CMA.

For example, shooting for at least five to six comparable listings, an appraiser compares the subject property to others they’ve collected of similar size and amenities, making adjustments for location, physical and economic factors, and zoning. That sounds familiar!

But there’s a few key ways an appraisal differs from a CMA:

  • While a real estate agent does the work to put together a CMA and analyze the findings, an appraisal is conducted by a third-party, independent certified home appraiser. The home appraiser is licensed and trained to assign a value to a home using a special report.
  • The CMA is more commonly used for the purposes of pricing a home for the market as part of a listing agent’s services. To obtain a pre-listing appraisal would cost the seller an additional $450 to $550 on average. You’d only opt to purchase one if your property was particularly challenging to price.
  • Lenders require buyers who are getting a mortgage to obtain an independent, third-party appraisal prior to their home closing. If the home appraises under the contract value, the buyer and seller will need to make up the difference somehow. This is required regardless of the CMA or whether you got a pre-listing appraisal.
  • However, your agent is considering what they believe will be the appraised value of your home when they price it with a CMA. Because agents have done hundreds of CMAs, they can often price within a few dollars of the appraised value
  • Finally, it’s common for an appraiser to visit, photograph, and measure your property as part of the process of assigning value. An agent who’s providing a CMA for free will likely go based on what they are able to access on the MLS.

CMAs vs. broker price opinions

Another real estate valuation tool is the broker price opinion, or BPO. While similar to a CMA, a BPO can crop up during a foreclosure or short sale, when a lender might ask for such calculations, says Herring, who has conducted these for lenders.

BPOs also can prove useful during loan modifications, refinancing, applying for home equity lines of credit, requests to remove primary mortgage insurance, and in legal matters such as estate settlements and dividing property in a divorce, according to the National Association of Broker Price Opinion Professionals (NABPOP), a national trade organization since 2003.

As far as the process goes, a BPO combines appraisal techniques with a real estate agent’s or broker’s market knowledge, NABPOP says. It’s less detailed than a residential appraisal but more detailed than a CMA and typically involves a two- or three-page report with pictures of the property and the neighborhood, an analysis of the neighborhood, information about the local and regional real estate market, and a sales analysis of comparable properties.

BPOs have a faster turnaround time than an appraisal (roughly three days versus about two weeks) and cost about 50%-75% less than an appraisal, NABPOP says. The association has guidelines for BPOs, but it notes that a customer’s specifications can override them.

Although a homeowner can request a BPO, some state laws are “nuanced” in terms of how a seller, buyer, or prospective sellers and buyers can use BPOs to arrive at a listing or asking price, according to a report from Bankrate.

How CMAs compare to online value estimates

Why not just type your address into a reputable online estimator tool? An automated valuation model (AVM) uses mathematical modeling to tap into a database of recent and comparable sales in an area, along with other public data, to calculate estimated property value. An AVM such as HomeLIght’s Home Value Estimator can provide a quick check of estimated value or serve as a good starting point.

However, the price (or price range) delivered by an online tool won’t hold up under the scrutiny of a formal appraisal, and it’s just not tailored enough to help you determine pricing strategy. Start with an online estimate, but follow it up with the opinion of a trusted agent if you’re planning to sell soon.

Herring owns six homes as investment properties and agrees that their value on AVMs varies widely. “The CMA is the most accurate [value assessment] when it’s done with the MLS,” he says.

A computer used to purchase a comparative market analysis.
Source: (Sigmund / Unsplash)

Is there anywhere I can purchase a CMA report?

Let’s say that you’re still not ready to connect with an agent and feel strange asking someone to produce a CMA for you at this time. You could order a CMA online from a company such as U.S. Home Value for $39.95. Nolo, a leading legal website that’s part of a consumer-friendly legal network since 2011, mentioned this particular company as providing a list of comparable properties that have sold in your neighborhood “with oversight from an actual human being.”

You also might try HomeLight’s Home Value Estimator. Like other AVMs, it also relies on the availability and accuracy of local real estate data but uses a short questionnaire to gather specific details about your property for a more personalized valuation. It also can connect you with top agents in your area as soon as you’ve taken a preliminary look at your home value.

But if you can get a CMA for free, why not try it? In addition to learning more about your home’s value, you’ll be able to evaluate an agent’s customer service for when you’re ready to hit the market.

“Most of my business comes from referrals. … So if somebody says, ‘George, hey, [someone] referred me to you, said you’re a great Realtor. I’m thinking of selling my house, but I have no idea where to start. Could you give me an idea of what the value of my home is?” Herring says. “Of course, I’m going to do a CMA for him for free. I’m not going to charge him anything.”

Header Image Source: (Luke Southern / Unsplash)