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Mobile Appraising: “But I Can’t See That Little Red Dot!”
By Dustin Harris, The Appraiser Coach
For more than half a decade, I have been teaching appraisers about efficiency in using lasers to assist them in measuring property for appraisals. Personally, I have been using a laser for nearly 20 years. Why am I so hot on this tool for appraisers? I am excited about any tool that will allow me to do a higher quality in less time. That’s right, I said higher quality!
When I first started teaching appraisers about lasers, I would usually ask for a show of hands from the audience indicating who uses lasers to measure. Years ago, that ratio was typically 20 percent who do, versus 80 percent who didn’t. Over the years, more and more appraisers have caught on to the idea that using a laser is the better way to go, as opposed to using a 100-foot tape or roller. Just a few weeks ago, I asked a room of about 350 appraisers the same question and about 80 percent of them raised their hand in the affirmative that they are using a laser. Progress, but there is still a 20 percent improvement that can be made!
Frankly, many who are not using lasers have some pretty darn good excuses for not doing so. I hear everything from “I have always carried my 100-foot tape,” to “I’m just too old to see that little red dot at the other end of the wall.” It is my goal, through this article, to help dispel some of the myths that are keeping appraisers from being more efficient with a laser measuring device.
“Which laser do I need?”
Before we begin, let’s tackle one of the first and most important questions I get from appraisers who are thinking about experimenting with lasers: which laser should I buy? That is a simple question with a complex answer. There are many things to consider when you look at your first laser purchase. Many appraisers look at the cost of lasers and shy away due to the high price tag. Do not make the mistake of confusing cost with investment. Once you are trained in a laser, it will save you a few minutes on every inspection, and over time, this adds up to more dollars in your pocket because you will be able to do more volume.
Remember, as self-employed business owners, time is money! On the other hand, there is no sense in overkill by purchasing the most expensive model. There are some important features that I think you need to look for when weighing your options. At the very least, you want a durable tool with a bright laser. These two things can be found on the most recent models from both Disto and Bosch. In addition, it is recommended that you find something with Bluetooth capabilities so it can be directly connected to your smartphone or tablet. I don’t always use this feature, but it is nice to have as an option. The ability to add and subtract will come in handy as we will discuss later.
Finally, I would never buy a model that does not have the rise and run feature that will allow you to hit the underside of the roof overhang, as often this is a huge time saver. I am partial to Disto because it is what I have always owned, what I am used to, and it has never let me down. However, I have been made aware, through several of my clients, that the new Bosch models are amazing as well. In the end, you need to purchase a model that has enough features to make it worth it, without overkill. Plan on spending between $250 and $700. It seems like $600 is the magical number of cost versus value.
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“I can’t see the little red dot!”
One of the big reasons appraisers do not use lasers is that they have found the tools to be wanting and gave up. You can’t fault them—at least they gave it a try.
Many complain that the little red dot is just too hard to see. Especially in more sunny environments, this is a legitimate problem. On the other hand, it is a problem that can be overcome utilizing a few tips. There are glasses which can be worn while you measure which allow you to see the red dot better. I am not the biggest fan of the glasses, mostly because of the way they look (I guess I am vain); the glasses themselves are red, which does not make sense to me, but they work.
Another trick is to look for shaded areas on the structure you are trying to measure. Even on a sunny, south-facing wall, you are likely to find a shady spot. Look for less noticeable areas such as the corner wrap on metal and vinyl siding, a door or window frame, or a gas meter or other object that may cast a little shadow. If all else fails, you can usually find shade on the underside of the roof (or soffit) even during the sunny part of the day. If you have a laser that allows you to utilize the rise and run feature (it uses the Pythagorean Theorem to subtract how much the red dot rises above the unit and then measures a straight line), you always have a shaded part that you can bounce off of. I find myself using this feature more often than I thought I would. I never have to worry about the side of the house being so sunny that I can’t see that little red dot.
“What if I don’t have anything to bounce off of?”
If at first you don’t succeed… well, you know the rest. It is common to try something and quickly give up if it does not work the way we think it should. If you are not used to using a laser to measure the home, getting in the mindset is sometimes challenging. For example, what if you get to the side of the building and there appears to be nothing to bounce off of? What do you do then? No, you don’t go to your car and get your tape!
Most lasers, even the most basic models, feature plus and minus options. If used correctly, these simple buttons can save you a lot of headache. For example, what if there is nothing along the corner of a long outside wall? Why not shoot to the door handle that is halfway down the wall, walk to the opposite side, hit the plus button, and shoot back to the same door knob? Once you hit the “=” button, you will have the full length of that wall. You can do the same thing with railings, exhaust fans, gas meters, or even those little pokey parts of stucco. I find this feature comes in handy if you can look beyond the wall you’re measuring. For example, why not shoot past the corner to the next house, fence, or a vehicle? You can then walk to the opposite side of the wall, hit the minus button, shoot to the same object again, and hit the “=” button to get the length. The point is to think outside the box. I have been known for saying “I’ve never met a wall that I could not measure with a laser.”
“I don’t trust this thing; it’s just too complicated.”
Trust is a big deal! Consciously or subconsciously we need to be able to have faith in whatever tool we are using in order to have confidence in the work we are performing. Trust and confidence come with experience. However, trust and faith can be gained the more we use a laser as well. It is my assertion that a laser, if used properly, is more accurate than the previously mentioned tools. For example, have you ever had your wheel hop on an uneven surface and give you a false reading? How many of you have walked to the opposite side of the wall only to have the “dumb end” of the tape fall and you guesstimate, rather than walking back and pick it up? Lasers are accurate down to the millimeter. I find I have to dumb them down a bit in order to not get hung up on little details.
Is it complicated? Sure, for the newbie. But again, the more you use these tools, the more you get used to them, appreciate their features, and become an expert. Remember the first time you ever picked up a smartphone? Now, it seems like second nature. A laser is not as complicated as a smart phone.
With any new tool, you will run into some roadblocks. There will be days that you will want to throw that thing across the yard, get in your car, drive away and never look back! However, persistence will be your greatest asset. Once you learn how to use it, the laser will make you more efficient and increase the quality of your work.
I always challenge my fellow appraisers, whenever they try something new, to give it the “10 House Challenge.” No matter the complexity, no matter the difficulty, be determined to use the laser on the next 10 houses that you inspect. Perhaps you will want to start out with a vacant home, or your own house for that matter. No problem, but do not show up to your sixth assignment having already decided that it is too challenging and give up. Push through! You will not be an expert after 10 homes, but I am confident that you will at least see the benefit and find the determination to persevere. Good luck fellow appraisers!
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About the Author
Dustin Harris is a successful, self-employed, residential real estate appraiser. He has been appraising for nearly two decades. He is the owner and president of Appraisal Precision and Consulting Group, Inc., and is a popular author, speaker and consultant. He also owns and operates The Appraiser Coach where he personally advises and mentors other appraisers helping them to also run successful appraisal companies and increase their net worth. His free podcast can be listened to on iTunes and Stitcher. He and his wife reside in Idaho with their four children. He loves playing in the outdoors and watching movies indoors.
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by Steve Hassoldt
Some good points… Having had both knees replaced in the past year, I looked into lasers after the 1st surgery. I was concerned that the unit had to have the Pythagorean Theorem capability and found a good unit to ‘compliment’ my 100′ tape, which to this day remains much more accurate than the roller! After 30+ years at this, I doubt that I will totally give up the tape, but the laser does have its advantages, especially measuring the inside of a condo unit, or the side of the house that has too much junk to easily use the tape.-
by Mike Ford, AGA, GAA, RAA, Realtor(r)
All good tips Dustin-but believe it or not some buildings have no shadow area to shoot (No overhang on a lot of ctu C&I props. Dustin the BIG issue IS price. I bought an inexpensive (ok, CHEAPEST) Bosch. It was fine for shaded, short runs of say 30+- feet. Anything bigger, not so much. First time I used it on C&I property I got to go back out two days later and remeasure the entire 20,000 sf 2 story office building in and out all over again. I’m sure the folks earns over at Bosch ears were blistering!
OK user error. The rise and run feature (triangle) is a MUST imho. THAT’S where the expensive part comes in. As near as I can tell the new not yet released Disto X4 has all the needed features for a price tag of $449. It appears to have some things the next more expensive model up doesn’t have. Today I did one of those old 1929 Spanish thick walled SFRs with a lot of articulation and rose bushes. It made me decide to try a laser again IF it has a pythagorean theorem function. Anything less is throwing money away. IF Disto would only hurry up and release the X4.
I don’t see a laser as saving me a lot of time but one COULD save me a lot of aggravation. At my age, that’s worth significantly more than it used to be worth when I was in my 30’s and 40’s..-
by Dale Bailey
Her is wat I find interesting, over the years of being in sales, we find the lowest common denominator to stress a sales point. The point here of saving time and increasing volume is erroneous in its conclusion. I typically save maybe 10 minutes per site visit. Sometime less sometime a little more depending on complexity (as expressed in your defining of way to measure by shooting to the next house and walking back yadda yadda.) If each property were lined up 6 inspecions in a row all time perfectly, and you did save the 10 minutes each that would give you the extrar hour to inspect, That is not happening so the theory of increasing volume at least to me, is erroneous in its conclusion. Higher quality of measure, most definitely. Is it the difference in a good appraisal and a great appraisal, no. Do what feels good to you and make the best of it, even if it takes longer!-