How to Use Comps to Invest in Real Estate
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Originally published June 15, 2021. This article was edited to meet broker-dealer compliance guidelines in April of 2023.
In any real estate transaction, comparable sales, commonly known as comps, are key to knowing what your property is worth. Residential real estate, while relatively transparent, still requires some smart analysis to determine fair prices.
That only becomes more true as you delve into more obscure forms of real estate, like commercial properties and farmland. This article provides a short introduction to comparables for these three main types of real estate and how to find and use them.
- What Are Comps, and Why Are They Important?
- Residential Comps
- Commercial Real Estate Comps
- Farmland Comps
What Are Comps, and Why Are They Important?
Comps are pretty simple on the surface: property transactions with enough similarity to the transaction you’re considering to provide context and help you establish a competitive price.
Buyers don’t want to overpay for a property and cut into longer-term returns; neither do they want to end up with a poor-quality property on their hands. If you’re buying as an investment, you want to make sure the return on your property is high enough to generate profit after expenses. And as a seller, you want to contract the highest price that’s fair and reasonable in your area.
Comps are crucial because a sales price is only partially based on a property’s intrinsic value or profitability. When assigning a dollar amount, the local market means everything.
Real estate is inherently a regional business, so every market will have its own norms and best practices for finding comps and establishing prices. Laws differ from state to state and county to county, as do markers of property value. Similar nuances mark different real estate types too.
Residential real estate markets are relatively transparent. If not exactly simple to navigate, there is nonetheless quite a bit of data available as a starting place. Commercial real estate (or CRE for short) has a few more barriers, while farmland stands apart in its obscurity to non-experts.
A local agent or broker is almost always the best resource for quality market information when you’re looking to sell or buy, but it always helps to be informed. Here are some general pointers for beginning your search for real estate comparables.
In the residential world, one tool makes all the difference: the MLS, or Multiple Listing Service. This online database contains the vast majority of residential properties and is managed collaboratively by regional brokers and agents. Because residential sales are high-volume and high-speed, there’s more incentive for transparency than in other real estate markets.
How to Find Residential Real Estate Comps
1. Check online listings.
It makes sense to start your search with popular listing sites like Redfin and Zillow. These sites pull their data from the MLS, although they aren’t always as accurate or up-to-date. Nonetheless, they’re able to give you a broad picture of the current real estate market in the area you’re looking at.
2. Access the MLS.
At the point that you begin to narrow down the handful of comps you’re going to really dig into, the MLS will contain the most relevant information, including historical sales data.
Typically only licensed brokerages and appraisers have access to the database, so you may need to go through an agent. They will be able to prepare what’s called a CMA, or Comparative Market Analysis, to help you make sense of market conditions and determine relevant comps. Sellers use CMAs to determine where to set their asking price.
3. Check public property records.
Though public records are not nearly as efficient or accessible as the MLS, they can come in handy for investigating specific sales, especially in areas of lower sales volume. They may also contain information unavailable on the MLS, such as transactions that were conducted privately or through out-of-area brokers.
Keep in mind these records don’t always provide the whole story; for example, they won’t reflect concessions made during the negotiation process. We’ll take a deeper look at public records below in the section on farmland comps.
4. Establish relevance.
As with all comparables, the more your comparison properties have in common with the one you’re looking at, the more useful they’ll be in helping you determine an appropriate price.
As a general rule of thumb, start by looking for comps with the same number of beds/baths and similar square footage as your property. Make sure they’re in the same neighborhood or very nearby and that they’ve closed within at least the past year, if not the past 3-6 months.
This will help you get an idea of the price per square foot properties like yours are getting in your area, allowing you to formulate a ballpark estimate on the current value of your home. There are many additional factors that should be considered in a true home valuation, but price per square foot can be a good starting point.
Lastly, make sure you only use completed sales—not just listed or pending properties. Below is an example Comparative Market Analysis showing some of the most common variables you might analyze for residential comps.
Source: Rocket Mortgage
Commercial Real Estate Comps
If residential real estate is a 9 on a 0-10 market transparency scale, commercial real estate— i.e. multifamily housing, office, retail, and industrial space—might fall around a 6. Reliable information is out there, but it’s more proprietary.
Sales are less frequent, involve higher prices, take longer, and are more privately transacted than residential. Plus, CRE requires a specialized knowledge set, namely around business property ownership and leasing. The upshot is that you’ll need to know how to dig a little deeper to find relevant comparable sales.
How to Find Commercial Real Estate Comps
1. Search online.
“More than 85% of all commercial real estate decisions begin with an online search,” claims popular CRE listing site LoopNet. Some commercial properties are listed on the MLS, but that’s by no means standard practice. A better option is a private database like LoopNet itself.
There are a lot of these online CRE listing sites, some for specific regions and property types, and much of the information they house is available to the public. Real estate brokers use them too—usually more than one at any given time.
2. Go to the source.
For a more granular view of comparables, companies like Costar (the parent company of LoopNet and of many other real estate sites) have more information that is more specific and reliable.
The major difference here is that Costar gathers its own data on the ground, tracking significant U.S. markets “by car and air,” according to its site. Thus, it standardizes CRE analysis in a way that individual sites with publicly-generated listings can’t. Costar and similar databases make their data available by subscription.
3. Talk with a local broker.
Every market is specific and nuanced, and many CRE investors learn about what they’re looking for through a combination of online research, word-of-mouth, and professional consultation. Fostering relationships with brokers and agents in your market is still the best way to get a sense of relevant comparable data.
One key data point in CRE (and in fact in any type of real estate that’s being purchased as an investment) is capitalization rate, or cap rate for short. The cap rate is how much money a property makes as a percentage of your initial investment.
The standard cap rate formula is:
Brokers and agents in the local area can be a great resource to help you find a good target cap rate for the market, but you can also narrow down a fair market cap rate with reliable comparable sales and lease data. Other important points of comparison include square footage, vacancy rates, tenant quality, lease terms, rental rates, expenses and more.
Farmland falls on the low end of the market transparency spectrum. While online listing sites do exist, they are far less reliable on a national scale and may not contain the most relevant information to your comps search.
If anything, farmland markets are more regionally specific, more private, and less formalized than CRE markets. Interest in top-tier land is often high enough that a parcel up for sale need not be made public; a private agreement facilitated amongst locals can get the job done. Alternatively, farms may go straight to auction.
Farmland tracts are much larger in sheer acreage than your average real estate listing, so it can also be difficult to find comparables with enough similarities to the property in question to be relevant.
Finally, the specialized agricultural knowledge and analysis necessary to transact farmland serves as a natural limit on the information a layperson can find—even more so than in CRE. Thus, any given online listing service provides an incomplete picture at best.
How to Find Farmland Comps
1. Find out if you’re looking in a disclosure state.
Disclosure states are ones in which the details of property transactions, including sales price, are documented in the public record.
Twelve states do not have disclosure laws: Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, some counties in Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. Outside these states, sales price information is recorded and accessible by the public, which leads you to the next step:
2. Examine public records.
Usually, county records are going to be the place to go for public sales information. Courthouses are the best widely available resource to look for comps in a local market. Some counties may have this information digitized and searchable, and some may not, requiring an in-person visit.
3. Contact a broker.
Ultimately, you may find you need more information that you’re able to get from public records. At this point, what you need is private information, which you can access by working with an experienced broker. Farmland brokers and agents are often seasoned farmers and landowners individually. They're also in constant review of deal flow for farmland across the U.S. Depending on their network, they can tap auctioneers, local appraisers, brokers, agents, and other operators and landowners in the area to find relevant comps.
4. Determine relevance.
Once you find a good number of comparable sales (we recommend five to ten), the next step is to determine their relevance to the property in question. Some of the most important factors in farm valuation include:
- size of the farm
- geographic proximity
- age of the sale (the more recent the better)
- soil type
- water access
- level of improvement
- fixtures or structures on the property
- price per tillable acre
- product logistics
- hunting leases and other recreational interests
- and many more
Major differences on any front between a comp sale and the property you’re evaluating may disqualify it from consideration, while minor differences can provide insight and help you adjust your ballpark price accordingly.
Ultimately, connections and expertise are the keys to finding and applying relevant comparables in real estate transactions, especially the more obscure types. If you know where to look and how to use what you find there, you can gain a strong sense of property values in any given area.
For farmland purchases, working with an experienced team can help you make sense of the variables and particularities of the land market in which you’re searching. Alternatively, if you’re looking to buy farmland as a more passive investment, the AcreTrader platform offers access to this great asset class without requiring intensive farm-specific diligence on your part.
Learn more about how investing in farmland works through AcreTrader.
The above content is not intended to be a comparison between products, but is intended for general, educational and informational purposes only. Any performance noted is historical and there is no guarantee any trends will continue. All investing involves risks, including the complete loss of principal. Diversification does not guarantee a profit or protect against loss in a declining market. It is important for each investor to review their investment objectives, risk tolerance, tax liability and liquidity needs before investing. Investment vehicles have differences in fee structure, risk factors and objectives. Investments are considered speculative, involve a high degree of risk and therefore are not suitable for all investors.
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