Getting an accurate sense of the current market value of your home is more of an art than a science. If you live in a housing development where all the homes are similar to one another, it’s easier to establish value than it is if you live in an area with extreme variability in home size, style, quality, amenities and condition.

To add to the mix, the real estate and finance markets are continually changing. As these markets change, so does the value of your home.

Getting an accurate sense of the current market value of your home is more of an art than a science. If you live in a housing development where all the homes are similar to one another, it’s easier to establish value than it is if you live in an area with extreme variability in home size, style, quality, amenities and condition.

To add to the mix, the real estate and finance markets are continually changing. As these markets change, so does the value of your home.

The statistics quoted in the media don’t offer much help in terms of understanding the current value of a single home. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) tracks the sales of existing homes in terms of median sale price. During a period of time, half the homes sold for more than the median price, and half sold for less.

When the median price increases, this can reflect higher overall home values. Or, it can simply mean that more expensive than inexpensive homes sold during a period. This was the situation in San Francisco last year when luxury properties outsold starter homes.

A decrease in the median price usually indicates that more inexpensive than expensive homes sold during that period. Many foreclosure properties are in the lower price ranges. In areas where the median sale price is declining dramatically, a higher volume of lower-priced foreclosure sales could be a contributing factor.

Regardless of price range, foreclosures tend to sell for about 15 percent below the rest of the inventory, according to Andrew LePage, an analyst with DataQuick Information Systems, a real estate information service.

HOUSE HUNTING TIP: Changes in median price at the national level gives you little information about changes in home values in your area. According to NAR, the national median sale price of existing homes declined 7.7 percent in March from a year ago. The California Association of Realtors reported that the median sale price of homes in the San Francisco Bay Area was down 10.2 percent from March 2007.

DataQuick came up with a different number. According to DataQuick, the median price of resale homes in the Bay Area declined 20.4 percent in March from a year ago. However, in Contra Costa County, one of the nine counties that comprise the Bay Area, the median sale price dropped by almost one-third from a year ago. This was attributed to that fact that 44.7 percent of the sales in March were foreclosures.

The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index uses a different method for measuring changes in the housing market. Rather than report changes in median sale price, S&P/Case-Shiller uses a repeat sales method that compares sale prices of individual homes that have sold at least twice over a period of time. This is thought to be a more reliable way to assess actual changes in market value. Corrections are made for such things as major renovations and deferred maintenance.

According to Robert Shiller, a Yale University economist who pioneered the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, home prices have declined 25 percent in the Bay Area since the market peaked in May 2006. Interestingly, Bay Area homes priced below $513,218 dropped 33 percent since February 2006. Higher-priced homes, above $756,420, declined only 6.8 percent.

The residential housing market is so localized that you need to consult with local professionals to get a realistic gauge of the current market value of your home. One approach is to have your home appraised by a knowledgeable local appraiser.

THE CLOSING: Or, have a local real estate agent who knows the market well prepare a comparative market evaluation for you.

Dian Hymer is author of "House Hunting, The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers" and "Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer’s Guide," Chronicle Books.

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