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Tom Kelly: What price a view? It’s in the eye of the beholder

What’s the most-sought after amenity in a property? Probably waterfront, but those homes are limited in number.

There’s no debate for second place – view. You can talk about imported hardwood floors and landscaped yards, but brokers and agents agree that views help to sell homes more than any other highlight.

Look at the ads online. If a home has any view at all, it’s always mentioned:

“Peek-a-boo lake view” can sometimes only be viewed by standing on a toilet near a second-floor dormer window and cranking your neck to get a glimpse of water through the neighbor’s trees – in winter.

In fact, even remote chances of view are mentioned. (“If you chop down that maple and relocate the swing set …”)

Several years ago, a story about former baseball star John Olerud’s home near Seattle again brought views to the front burner – and also local laws that govern how they can be maintained.

Olerud, a one-time American League batting champ and three-time Gold Glove winner, had been asking his neighbors for more than two years if he could pay to cut down a tree blocking his view of the Seattle skyline. For two-plus years, the neighbors had refused. The Oleruds wanted the neighborhood Board of Adjustment to order their neighbors to cut down the tree, saying it unreasonably obstructed the view from their $4 million property.

The tiny suburb where they live was the first in the area – and one of the first in the nation – to adopt a process for condemning trees that block too much of neighbors’ sunlight or scenic views.

No tree had been cut under that 20-year-old law.

To obtain a tree-cutting order under the “view obstruction and tree removal” ordinance, an owner must show that a view is unreasonably blocked, that the obstruction decreases his enjoyment of his property and that removing the tree wouldn’t unreasonably decrease a neighbor’s enjoyment of his property.

While some views can be stunning and mesmerizing, even the slightest territorial view can affect home values and sales prices. Homeowners in San Francisco, Boston, Miami, San Diego and elsewhere are often spoiled and take for granted the number of water view properties in their region, opportunities not available in most areas of the country.

For example, view homes are so common in West Seattle that an agent told me a view was “not that important because you get used to it. You don’t even notice it after a while.”

What price a view? How do we determine its value? In Southern California beach cities, agents and brokers have assigned values of ocean view properties by the “type” of water in the view. For example, a “whitewater view” (waves crashing, whitewater foam) is much more expensive than a “blue water view” (no coastline). If you can barely make out water in the distance, it’s tagged as a “horizon” view.

The value of a view will always be what someone will pay for it. In that regard, it’s similar to a home or a painting. You can establish a market value by comparable sales, but people will often pay more or less than the established price.

Nearly three decades ago, Burnell Thorley, a real-estate appraiser, took a step to ascertain the value of a view of a vacant lot for his master’s thesis. Thorley researched 94 of the 614 lots in three large subdivisions and compiled statistics on each lot. By considering 14 variables, including the date of sale, shape, square footage, location, water and degree of view, he determined the value of the view.

In some cases, the view was worth 50% of the selling price of the lot.

A view can be foreground, middle ground or background. It can be man-made (noisy freeway) or natural (placid lake).

The value has always been in the eye of the beholder.

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