Todd Huttunen began appraising more than 20 years ago with a few years off in between to pursue a career in cabinet making. He relegated that to hobby status and is currently an appraiser in an assessor’s office. His best friend dubbed him The Hall Monitor because of his rigidity and respect for rules. He offers Soapbox readers tongue-in-groove insight on appraisal issues. In this post Todd structures the building argument for a change in terminology. …Jonathan Miller

Improve v 1. To raise to a more desirable or more excellent quality or condition; make better. 2. To increase the productivity or value of (land or property). 3. To put to good use; use profitably.

Improvement n 1a. The act or process of improving. b. The state of being improved. 2. A change or addition that improves.

These definitions are from the American Heritage College Dictionary, fourth edition, published in 2002. This same dictionary does not include an entry for “teardown”, as this is a relative “arriviste” in the lexicon of real estate. However, the term teardown has become ubiquitous among people living in the many places across the country where they are common. The New York Times, in an editorial on July 1, 2008 entitled Holding Back the Wrecking Ball, makes reference to a Westport, Conn. Web site featuring Teardown of the Day.

The Appraisal of Real Estate, thirteenth edition, has recently been issued (so says Jonathan Miller in Soapbox) but I’m still working from the twelfth edition and I have no plans to buy the new one. The index in my book does not include a reference to “teardown”. I am genuinely curious as to whether or not the thirteenth edition does. Consider this a plea to those of you who have the new book. Does the word teardown appear in the index, or doesn’t it? In my opinion it absolutely belongs there. What no longer belongs there is the word “improvement”, or any derivation thereof.

From this point forward, in appraisal parlance the word improvement should be replaced with the word structure. (or perhaps you have a better word) “As improved” should be “as structured”, “unimproved” becomes “unstructured”, you get the idea. The reason should be obvious. The very definition of the word improvement carries with it the implication that the “structure” always adds value to the land. And until fairly recently that was generally true but it is no longer necessarily so. An “improvement” that does not enhance the value of the land IS NOT AN IMPROVEMENT. If it were then “teardown” wouldn’t have become the commonly used word that everyone understands.

In the case of a teardown, not only does the structure not add value, it diminishes the value of the land, as unstructured. The word “structure”, which makes no premature judgment as to any contributory value of an existing building, allows for the critical question to be asked in a way that the word “improvement” does not. Does the existing structure enhance the value of the land, or does it diminish it? In places where teardowns are common the answer is clear the value of the land, as vacant, is greater than its value, as structured. It’s misleading, ridiculous even, to call these buildings “improvements”.

In real estate appraisal the word “improvement” is an archaic term reflective of an early 20th century truism land was cheap (dirt cheap) and most of the value (75% or more) was in the building. In the early 21st century, in many urban and suburban places this notion is demonstrably false. In these areas the land component may account for as much as 50% of total value and that’s with new construction! The best way to acknowledge this reality is to replace the heavily biased word “improvement” with the more neutral “structure”.