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Billboard valuation without distortion: the Heathrow decision.

Outdoor advertising (ODA) signs, excluding on-premise signs, come in a variety of types, sizes, and shapes. However, most people lump them into a single category known as billboards. In many parts of the country, billboards along busy streets and highways are more prevalent than service stations and fast-food restaurants. Some transportation corridors are dominated by these structures, while other locales have few if any billboards due to local zoning and land use regulations.

The merits of billboards are frequently and emotionally debated in various public forums. This article takes no position on whether billboards are good or bad. The objective is to impart a deeper understanding of billboard valuation in general and of the specifics of a recent Florida court decision that could affect appraisals throughout the United States. The court's decision seemed to leave the valuation problem in the hands of real estate appraisers. It did little to explain exactly how the valuation was to be done and did not resolve related legal issues that have frustrated appraisers throughout the country for decades.

This article is based on more than two years of gathering information on the outdoor advertising business. I interviewed more than a dozen outdoor advertising company owners, executives, and others engaged in different facets of the business. I also analyzed advertising contracts and agreements, ground leases, permit records, income and expense reports, sign sale documents, advertising rate sheets, construction bids and estimates, and various industry publications. Finally, I reviewed nearly 200 market value billboard appraisals prepared by more than a dozen different independent fee appraisers, mainly for the Florida Department of Transportation. Also included were landowner appraisals, sign company appraisals, and depositions of these experts and other witnesses. Transcripts from several billboard condemnation trials and hearings were reviewed, along with other pertinent legal documents.


In most states, billboards are treated as tangible personal property. In eminent domain acquisitions, that meant the sign structures were moved on a cost-to-cure basis within the same property, if possible. If relocation was not possible for any reason, the appraiser used replacement or reproduction cost new less accrued physical depreciation for valuation purposes. Over the years, in different states, outdoor advertising companies attempted to use another method of valuation based on the billboard's value for its potential to generate advertising revenue. In most cases, this valuation method was rejected on the basis that those revenues reflected noncompensable advertising business income. For example, a condemning agency would not value or pay for a doctor's medical practice if the doctor's office were acquired through eminent domain. The legal theory is that constitutionally the doctor must be compensated for the real estate interest being acquired, but that the doctor's intangible medical practice or business can be performed in another location. Therefore, the business claim is considered noncompensable.

Two recent regulatory and legal actions in Florida significantly affected the way ODA signs are valued in eminent domain cases: First, some cities and counties enacted regulations aimed at eliminating or greatly reducing the number of billboards in certain locations. These actions ranged from amortization schedules that led to sign removals after certain recapture time periods, to the prohibitions to constructing new signs or reconstructing them once they are removed for any reason. These actions caused sign companies to vehemently oppose them on constitutional grounds. The companies demanded payment based on how much advertising revenue is lost whenever their signs were acquired or removed.

Second, in State of Florida v. Heathrow, the court's decision, which was upheld in a District Court of Appeals, challenged the traditional cost approach valuation method for billboards, but left many unanswered questions) The court used language from the federal Relocation Act(2) to describe the Heathrow billboard, which was acquired in an Interstate Highway widening north of Orlando. It was described as an improvement to the condemned real property. The Act requires that tenant-owned improvements to real property be acquired as though they were real property interests. Heathrow requires that billboards be valued using standard real estate appraisal techniques and that the following specific tasks be performed:

1. Estimate the contributive value of the billboard as an improvement to the condemned real property.

2. Estimate the value of the billboard itself.

3. Select a final value estimate of the billboard, which must be the greater amount indicated by 1 or 2, but not less than the depreciated reproduction cost new.

Appraisers, attorneys, and courts will undoubtedly continue to debate the application of the Heathrow decision. Contributive value seems synonymous with the commonly accepted appraisal term and concept known as contribution. The principle of contribution states that the value of a particular component is measured in terms of its contribution to the value of the whole property or as the amount that its absence would detract from the value of the whole.(3)


A highly charged litigious and adversarial environment in Florida is so polarized with self-interest that any effort to find a reasonable solution to the dilemma of complying with the Heathrow decision based on solid research and data and sound valuation and economic principles is nearly impossible. The gravity of the situation is best demonstrated using an example of a hypothetical but typical situation found in Florida since Heathrow. A billboard is being acquired under eminent domain. It is a one-sided, 10-foot-by-40-foot frame structure supported by wood poles, is lighted, and is a painted bulletin-type display that is legal but nonconforming. The billboard is 30 years old and in good physical condition with good right-read visibility. It has been generating about $3,000 per month with minimal vacancy over the last three years.

The appraiser working for the condemning agency gets little or no cooperation from the ODA sign company that owns the billboard on leased land being acquired in a road widening. The appraiser is only able to use the cost less physical depreciation approach with the following results:

$7,000 (cost new) - $1,000 (physical depreciation) = $6,000 (estimated market value)

The appraiser working for the sign company is provided with revenue and sales information by the sign company and develops only the sales comparison approach using a gross income multiplier (GIM) from various sales. The result is the following:

$3,000 x 12 months = $36,000/year x GIM of 3.0 = $108,000 estimated market value

A value spread of 18 times makes the appraisers look like advocates, fools, or at the very least, unprofessional. Juries and judges hear the explanations and must eventually determine which witness and explanation is the more credible.


When most appraisers are first challenged with a billboard appraisal involving something more than the traditional cost approach, a series of comparisons will likely be made using various forms of income-producing real estate. The end result presents difficulties in terms of how real property is taxed, depreciated, sold, publicly recorded, financed, operated, occupied, leased, etc., compared with billboards.

The overall comparability improves dramatically when real estate is replaced by tangible personal property assets that are key income-producing components of a going-concern business enterprise. If real estate were compared with the vending machines in businesses and public places from which the vending company regularly collects revenue from each machine, it becomes clear that the money earned is the primary and perhaps sole revenue source for the vending business. The machines are tangible personal property assets that produce the revenue for the company. The machines are depreciated and taxed as tangible personal property even though they are the revenue-producing component of a going-concern vending business. There are no land leases, but there is an agreement between the vending machine company and the party owning or controlling the place where the machines are located. The vending machine company does all the work, as the active business operator. The party controlling the place where the machines are located remains passive. In locations that have a lot of customers, the revenue will be much higher than at locations with few customers even if each location has identical machines. Both parties share in the revenue generated at each location but one party, the vending machine operator, usually gets the lion's share because the company bought the machine, supplies the merchandise, provides all services, pays all expenses, and earns a profit.

The similarities of billboards to vending machines are imperfect but significantly more relevant than virtually any real estate comparison. Both have tangible personal property assets that are the revenue-generating components of a going-concern business, and both need to be in good locations to generate good revenue streams. A billboard without revenue-producing advertising is like a vending machine without any saleable merchandise. A vending machine in an abandoned building is like a billboard on a detour road with no cars or a sign blocked by a tree or other obstruction. In both situations the tangible personal property asset or component must have a viable location to generate business revenue. One component without the other renders both components of little or no economic value.

A real estate appraiser may not qualify to appraise a vending machine company, but the appraiser's real estate training, principles, and common sense help eliminate some of the problems of trying to make vending machines or billboards something they are not. Heathrow did not imply that facts, reason, and sound judgment should be disregarded. It is one thing to use real estate appraisal techniques to value nonrealty assets, but it is quite another to produce an unreasonable and misleading result.

No competent professional business appraiser would value each individual vending machine on the basis of the revenue being generated at each different location and attribute all of that value to the individual machines. Even though all the revenue is generated through the vending machines, the value of all those revenue streams after the expenses have been deducted would be capitalized or converted into the value of the going-concern business, not into the pro rata values of each machine with no recognition of the vending machine enterprise or business. After valuing the vending machine business as a whole, the value of the individual machines would most likely be based on their cost less depreciation for allocation purposes. Converting gross individual billboard revenues via a gross income multiplier (GIM) to billboard value ignores entrepreneurship or the going-concern business component, which is intangible but real and therefore may not be legally compensable.

The point is that billboards are a great deal more like vending machines than they are like income-producing real estate. With that point in mind, an appraiser will probably remain on solid footing when he or she attempts to value billboards while upholding the spirit of the Heathrow decision for a credible billboard appraisal.


Relationships and terminology in advertising can become muddled and cause appraisers serious problems. There are three main entities involved in most forms of advertising, including outdoor advertising: the public or target group of potential customers whom advertisers wish to influence; the advertiser with the products or services to be promoted to potential customers (the public); and the media, places or spaces where the public is exposed to the advertiser's message, usually in exchange for a fee. (The media often consist of an active advertising business and a passive party that controls the place where advertising is displayed.)

Advertisers are clients or customers of the media owner or business operator, the entity which coordinates the advertising activity. In billboard advertising, the active operator is typically an outdoor advertising sign company and the passive party is the owner of the site on which the sign is constructed. There may be other parties that have a role in advertising, but the aforementioned entities are essential and commonplace. To people in advertising, a sale or lease usually has nothing to do with real estate. They mean that an ad has been placed for a fee.


Outdoor advertising is a very competitive business. There are reasons that certain business records are not typically open to the public. The appraiser should have the right to examine all the records supporting a claim that value is based on potential revenue generated through an advertising business.

Sales of income properties or businesses would not take place if appraisers and/or prospective buyers could not examine the owner-sellers' records of leases, income, expenses, vacancies, maintenance records, etc. If such basic information were withheld or supplied only on a selective basis and there were no other public record sources to examine, the appraisal would be significantly less reliable than it would be with full disclosure.

Until the courts or the outdoor advertising industry allows appraisers to examine certain business records, it may be necessary to examine the related businesses that are subject to a higher level of public access. Many billboard companies have expanded into businesses that provide advertising to publicly owned bus systems. They also handle advertising on bus shelters, bus benches, ads in airports, sports complexes, and other places in which large numbers of people pass or gather. Many of these contractual relationships involve public entities where records can be examined.

Why bother to study nonbillboard advertising enterprises and arrangements? What do bus and airport advertising have to do with outdoor advertising? These related enterprises have all the elements of outdoor advertising, but the advertising business is clearly separate from the entity that owns or controls where advertising is displayed. This shows what happens to a single source of advertising revenue that has to be shared or split between an active advertising business and the passive entity that controls the display location. It is key to understanding how to separate the contributive value of the improvement or billboard structure from the noncompensable advertising business.


Billboards are a form of advertising known as out-of-home advertising. Go to a movie, an arena, a sporting event, or a public space where people pass or congregate and your visual and audio senses will likely be bombarded with forms of out-of-home advertising. In-home advertising includes newspapers, magazines, radio, television, telephone, and mail solicitations.

Just a few years ago outdoor advertising was perceived as a somewhat old-fashioned, low-tech, unsophisticated and fragmented form of advertising. It sometimes suffered from image problems, particularly where billboards contributed significantly to urban clutter or spoiled scenic vistas.

Outdoor advertising and other forms of out-of-home advertising are currently enjoying a surge in popularity and profitability. Outdoor advertising generated $2.1 billion(6) in annual revenue in 1997 in the United States. The annual growth in revenues from 1996 was 8.3%, with similar strong growth for the last several years. This economic strength is directly related to the proliferation of television channels, radio stations, publications, and a variety of entertainment and news media underwritten in large part by advertising revenues. This proliferation in advertising venues has made it more difficult and costly for producers of goods and services to reach potential customers through advertising. Billboards get a lot of exposure along most major roadways with heavy traffic since congestion often slows traffic for improved billboard exposure. In this way, billboards are a great alternative to the shrinking or fragmented audiences of some competitive advertising media.

One serious historical drawback to outdoor advertising was that it was divided into mostly small local and regional firms. It was difficult and expensive to mount a national or even an effective regional ad campaign in past years due to the great number of competing firms. Over the last five years, there has been a major shift to consolidate ownership with a wave of buyouts by large outdoor advertising companies. Several of these huge firms have gone public and are seeking national status. Some of the largest outdoor advertising firms are multimedia giants able to offer one-stop advertising in a variety of media. Vivid computer-generated images on reusable vinyl, automated rotating multiple displays, and changing digital messages are just some of the technological advances that make the future for ODA seem very bright.


Billboards do sell in the marketplace, but not in the real estate marketplace. These sales may involve a single sign, a group of signs, an entire plant (a company's sign holdings in a particular area), and/or an entire company. The typical buyers in the market are other, larger sign companies. Non-ODA participants can buy signs, but in most cases the buyer would be like someone not in the petroleum business attempting to operate a totally independent service station with no refineries, no distribution system, nor any market affiliation or identity. Thus, a non-ODA participant is possible but not common.

Regardless of whether a single sign asset or a whole company is being purchased, a standard method of determining selling or purchasing prices used by the ODA industry is with a GIM. This multiplier is usually applied to actual monthly or annual advertising revenues. Huge corporate buyouts of ODA companies can include more sophisticated investment analyses.

Some of the key characteristics considered in a typical billboard sale include the following; location, which usually relates to exposure and average annual daily traffic (AADT); nature and durability of the site interest, which ties back into lease terms and cancellation provisions; and revenue potential, which usually relates to location and exposure. The structure itself can be important to purchasers even though an old wooden billboard that costs $6,000 could be generating the same advertising revenue as a steel monopole that may cost $30,000.

There are many other factors that ODA operators may consider when buying sign assets. Most sign companies will use higher multipliers for legal conforming signs as opposed to similar but legal nonconforming structures. Legal nonconforming signs were built according to laws and regulations in effect when they were constructed. Due to changes in laws and regulations (i.e., zoning), these sign structures are now nonconforming and cannot usually be replaced or moved if substantially damaged or acquired for right-of-way purposes. Some appraisers have reasoned that nonconforming signs are worth more than conforming structures, but market research contradicts this theory.

Sales may include advertising contracts that may be viewed by the buyers as either assets or liabilities, depending on what advertising revenues are likely without the contracts (obligations). Sales can also include noncompete and/or territorial rights agreements. Sales may include other tangible and intangible assets, including a work force, equipment, supplies, client lists, and records. They normally do not include goodwill and/or trade names because the buying entity usually extinguishes all traces of the selling entity. However, goodwill may be used in certain going-concern transactions for tax allocation and depreciation purposes. The billboards themselves, through logos and company names, become permanent advertisements for the buying sign company or operator.

The ODA asset that sells in the marketplace usually consists of: a sign structure, a site interest (usually a ground lease or a legal right to occupy a particular location), a permit, and the potential to generate advertising revenue (the advertising business component).

Most billboard sales do not include the fee owner's (lessor's) interest, which almost never sells independently of the parent tract. The sign company selling the asset normally assigns their lessee's interest to the buying entity. Likewise, the sign permit is transferred to the new sign owner-lessee.

The multiplier concept used by the billboard industry is similar to a going-concern chain fast-food restaurant being valued on the basis of a multiplier applied to gross food and beverage revenues. If such a multiplier were indicative of the market prices paid for similar going-concern businesses, it would reflect the total value of all the integrated assets being sold as a whole. Those assets could include a land lease; the restaurant building; furniture, fixtures and equipment; and the business franchise. It would represent a "lock, stock, and barrel" type of value of the whole enterprise. The value of the individual components could not exceed the value of the whole integrated enterprise. Each component's contributory value, which makes up the saleable whole, would have to be properly allocated based on its respective contributory value to the entire going-concern business.

It is absolutely essential in billboard appraisal that the interest being appraised be clearly stated and that the appraiser does not produce a misleading result. In the fast-food restaurant example, the owner-operator would not be paid for the franchise (business) in an eminent domain taking even though it might be worth several hundred thousand dollars. Likewise, the doctor would not be paid for the medical practice even though its value could greatly exceed the value of the office property being acquired. Once again, the rationale behind the business exclusion in eminent domain is that the business can be relocated.

In real estate, it is highly unusual for an existing improved property to sell for significantly more than the cost to create it. It is not unusual for billboards to sell for five to ten times or more than their reproduction cost new. In some instances, the gap between reproduction cost new and the market sales price is so great that some appraisers have elected not to include a cost approach. This huge gap or spread cannot be readily explained using commonly accepted real estate appraisal principles. The reason for this gap is that the billboard is not income-producing real property, but is the income-generating asset in a going-concern advertising business. The billboard has exclusivity in a particular location by virtue of an annual permit fee that in Florida currently costs $55 for up to two display advertisements on a single structure facing one direction. Some appraisers have reasoned that the permit is like a liquor license that would have significant measurable value if it were allowed to be sold to the highest bidder in the open market. In other words, the permit and its exclusivity may account for some of the enormous gaps between what the sign itself costs and what it sells for as a business asset on the open market. As a matter of fact, if any of the integrated asset components are eliminated, the whole asset loses all or most of its economic value. If the sign structure, sign site interest, the permit, and the advertising business element do not exist as a fully integrated unit, there is little or no asset value.


One of the most important aspects of a highest and best use analysis on a property with a billboard is the legal status of the structure. It is assumed that no one would appraise an illegal sign. Billboards are governed by a complex and sometimes overlapping body of federal, state, and local laws, and regulations. New billboard structures usually have to meet several code requirements that include the typical size, height, and setback-type standards. In addition, there may be such things as wind load factors and spacing requirements (distances from other signs).

The status of the ODA sign in relation to conformity usually dictates whether the sign can be relocated or replaced in the event that it is badly damaged in a storm or an accident, or if it is being acquired for a public purpose. Nonconforming signs may legally have worn or damaged parts of the structure replaced or repaired, but the structure cannot usually be changed or upgraded in any significant way.

The parent tract will usually have an identifiable highest and best use regardless of the existence or absence of the billboard structure. That use should be appraised using standard appraisal techniques, and all interests should be appraised at one time to avoid having the sum of the parts equal more than the whole. The billboard usually does not represent the highest and best use, but is an ancillary or supplemental use that should be legal and not adversely affect the highest and best use or value of the parent property. The sign use normally results in extra or bonus income to the fee owner in the way of ground rent. That bonus income may have value to the fee owner, and the appraiser must carefully analyze whether that bonus value would be recognized in a hypothetical arm's length sale of the property on the effective date of appraisal.


Sign companies make the point that in most jurisdictions they have the legal right to replace portions of sign structures. Old wooden structures that are legal, but non-conforming and in very good advertising locations, are rarely allowed to deteriorate to a nonfunctional condition. Over decades, such structures will likely have nearly all the component parts replaced and in some instances several times. In other words, the remaining economic life and the amount of accrued depreciation is a highly subjective and difficult-to-support estimate.

If a billboard loses its advertising business value by virtue of trees or other obstructions, or passing traffic is diverted from an old highway to a new expressway, all or most of the economic value may vanish. Whether such loss in value is due to functional or external obsolescence, the loss is real and clearly linked to the advertising business component of the advertising asset. To avoid some very arduous and esoteric debates on which type of obsolescence and how it should be estimated, the appraiser should concentrate on what can be supported in the cost approach. That is, what is the reproduction or replacement cost of the sign as if new? It could be based on actual costs or written estimates or bids from sign fabricators or constructors who build similar sign structures. Special care should be taken not to load the cost estimate with unsupported soft or indirect costs, entrepreneurial incentives, profit, and/or premiums. If there is a significant gap between the actual cost of the sign structure and its contributive economic value, there may be a tendency to reduce the gap with subjective, unsupported, and highly speculative costs. This practice negates Heathrow's requirement to provide the estimated depreciated value of the sign itself. Further, it distorts the multicomponent nature of the ODA asset by fusing value relationships when separation or segmentation is the key part of the valuation process. The cost approach should be straightforward. Depreciation should be estimated on the observed physical condition of the overall structure unless other solid market-based information is available.


The income approach is often the appraiser's first choice as an ODA valuation technique. The billboard has income and expenses, and it appears that direct capitalization is the best way to estimate value. This first impression should be considered in light of the following facts, observations, and conclusions: The ODA industry does not use the income approach, nor does it retain real estate appraisers except in eminent domain cases in which settlements cannot be reached. Virtually all billboard appraisals that were reviewed had rationalized overall capitalization rates as opposed to extracted rates from actual market sales. The rates were almost always real estate based and had nothing to do with the risk and investment characteristics of billboards. Finally, most appraisers failed to identify all the business-related expenses and virtually never excluded business profit, thereby capitalizing a figure that was mostly a going-concern business profit but identified the results as the contributory value of the billboard. The income approach using direct capitalization should be used only if the capitalization rate is properly extracted from billboard sales and business profit is excluded so as not to produce a misleading result.


In this example, assume that the appraiser gathered credible market data either through the cooperation of the billboard company (sign owner) or through extensive research. He employed an outdoor advertising subconsultant, developed a gross income multiplier, and converted the advertising revenue to a value estimate for the business asset - the billboard.(5)

There are a number of ways to segregate the business component, which may not be compensable in eminent domain from the contributive value of the billboard (an improvement to the real estate which is compensable). Without the cooperation of the ODA company or industry consultants, the valuation task will be very difficult but not impossible. For example, information sources could include revenue splits in related advertising ventures, actual revenue-sharing arrangements on billboards not owned by the billboard company, and income and expense analyses of the billboard company's records possible with the assistance of a qualified certified public accountant.


The billboard is a 14-foot-by-48-foot, double-faced, illuminated, V-shaped, steel monopole with painted or vinyl bulletin-type displays. The structure has unobstructed visibility along a suburban interstate with an AADT volume of 70,000 and a height above grade (HAGL) of 30 feet.

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

The $168,000 of total asset value reflects what sign companies buying sign assets from one another pay in the marketplace. The only exception is the last step, which involves the deduction of the legally noncompensable business component. The contributive value does not include any incremental value for the market ground rent (i.e., bonus income or extra rent to the parent tract owner). Remember that sign companies do not ordinarily acquire the fee owner's interest in the site when sign assets are acquired. How to value the fee owner's interest is usually a problem because appraisers tend to revert to a direct capitalization or discounting process using real estate rates of return for the ground rent.

A more logical approach because of shared risks, investment characteristics, and the integrated nature of the asset is to use the market-derived GIM to convert bonus market ground rent to a bonus value estimate. Any missing essential asset component will destroy the economic value of the whole billboard unit (shared risks). For example:

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]


If the sign company were paying only 10% contract rent and market rent were 20% of annual revenue, then the $33,600 would be split evenly between the site lessee and the site lessor because of a positive leasehold interest.

The value estimates in table 1 are believed to comply with the Heathrow decision and reflect reasonable and supported value conclusions using real estate valuation techniques.

Notice that the revenue allocations are proportional to the value increments, so that 20% ground rent ($8,400) is equal to 20% of total asset value less the sign site incremental value of $33,600 + $168,000. Many appraisers rely on direct capitalization rates applied to the ground rent using long-term ground lease rates, which have little to do with billboard ground lease risks and/or characteristics.


The Heathrow decision appeared to leave the valuation of billboards in the domain of real estate appraisers, but did not specify how such atypical valuation assignments should be processed. It did, however, open the way for appraisers to research and analyze the problem in anticipation of finding a viable appraisal solution based on standard real estate appraisal techniques.

This article shares research and suggests specific valuation techniques based on the only available market-derived sales data without distorting the true nature of a billboard. The value conclusions presented do not dispute the premise that the contributory value cannot logically exceed the cost new of the tangible personal property asset of a going-concern advertising business, a billboard.

Author's Note: The opinions and methodologies expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official or endorsed position or opinions of the Florida Department of Transportation.

1. Department of Transportation, State of Florida v. Heathrow Land & Development Corporation, et. al., 579, So.2d. 183, Fla.5thDCA (1991).

2. Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970, sec. 302 or 42 U.S.C. 4652.

3. Appraisal Institute, The Appraisal of Real Estate, 11th ed. (Chicago, Illinois: Appraisal Institute, 1996), 45.

6. OAM Publications, "What's New/News in Outdoor," Outdoor Advertising Magazine (March/April 1998): 48

5. The Appraisal of Real Estate, 403,523.


Floyd, Charles. "Appraising Outdoor Advertising Signs: A Critical Analysis," The Appraisal Journal (July 1998): 305-315.

Sutte, Donald T. 1994. The Appraisal of Outdoor Advertising Signs. Chicago, Illinois: Appraisal Institute.

Stephen M. Cantwell, MAI, is the deputy manager of appraisals and cost estimates for the Florida Department of Transportation, Tallahassee. He received his BA in economics from Marian College, Indianapolis. Mr. Cantwell has many years of experience in real estate consultation and valuation, and is qualified as an expert witness in state and federal courts. Contact: Florida Department of Transportation; 605 Suwannee St., MS22; Tallahassee, FL 32399-0450. (950) 414-4608. Fax 488-5671.
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Title Annotation:court case ruling
Author:Cantwell, Stephen M.
Publication:Appraisal Journal
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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