NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - The sun is shining. Fresh scones lie under a linen napkin on the picnic table. Sandy Grice is dipping in and out of history, talking about the range of unique properties he’s had in his hands.
There are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon than in the backyard of Grice’s cozy, yellow house, sandwiched between the Elizabeth River and Old Dominion University.
Grice, 71 and a third-generation property appraiser, spent decades specializing “in the big stuff, the historic stuff, the weird stuff.” He worked in all corners of the commonwealth and then some, calculating values on everything from airports to the ruins of a house that belonged to the Witch of Pungo.
Properties for which there are no easy comparables - or “comps,” as real estate agents say.
What’s a hole in a mountain worth (Crozet Tunnel)? Or an island that’s steadily migrating (Cedar Island)? How about a lighthouse miles offshore (Chesapeake Light)?
“I never made a lot of money myself,” Grice says with a grin, offering coffee to go with the scones he baked this morning. “But every day was different, and I got to do some really cool things.”
Homeowners are familiar with appraisals, a routine part of house sales. But they also come into play with property tax appeals, land donations, easements, condemnations, high-dollar estate disputes and divorce settlements, even criminal charges.
That last category is what led Grice to the Witch of Pungo’s place, a rundown, two-story that used to stand off Muddy Creek Road in southern Virginia Beach. The house once belonged to Grace Sherwood, convicted of witchcraft in 1706. Legend had it that her spirit protected the house from fire.
Haunted? Maybe. But arsonists set it ablaze in the 1990s, and prosecutors bringing charges turned to Grice to establish value.
He labels that one “Appraising the Supernatural,” and warms to the tale:
“Had to testify in federal court. And because the value was greater than $5,000, we’re talking felonies. All guilty. What was left of the house was torn down after that.”
The sagas that permeate a property like Sherwood’s are a bonus for Grice, who loves history. But they rarely factor into his math.
His job requires stripping sentiment away, coming up with a clear-eyed conclusion he can support with documentation.
“What’s a story worth anyway?” he shrugs.
He seems relieved that’s one he doesn’t have to answer.
Alexander Pinkham Grice IV. That’s his formal name. Number II (his grandfather) was a prominent land developer, helping shape Norfolk Naval Base and Virginia Beach in the early 1900s.
“He was selling Oceanfront lots for $750 and finding it tough going,” Grice says. “People didn’t want to live at the ocean then. Can you imagine?”
Number III (his father) became a real estate broker and, along with Number II, formed AP Grice & Son in 1953, an appraisal and consulting firm with an office in Norfolk’s Selden Arcade.
Number IV dragged his feet a bit before joining the family firm. He went to college at the University of Richmond, majoring in psychology. Spent two years in the Peace Corps, where he swung a hammer in Tunesia. Back in the U.S., he headed west for a stretch of skiing before deciding in his mid-20s it was time to come home.
Professionals like Grice - licensed by the state and certified by trade organizations like the Appraisal Institute - spend their early careers under the watchful eyes of veterans.
“Doing grunt work,” Grice says. “A lot of measuring and photographing.”
He was lucky on the boredom front. Unlike some outfits that stick to niches, AP Grice & Son branched out.
Nick Paxson, who went to work there in 1987 before starting his own firm, said the family’s deep local roots and connections brought variety.
“The calls came from everywhere,” Paxson says, “so instead of just apartment complexes or office buildings, they did shipyards and post offices and gas stations - all kinds of interesting stuff. Sandy got a really broad perspective. And I loved going into that office. It was like a museum, full of old photographs and maps.”
Grice’s fondness for the work grew with his experience. The more unusual the property, the better - a reason to dig through dusty archives, unravel a puzzle, solve the case.
“I like a challenge,” he says. “The oddball things.”
Take Cedar Island, a barrier island about halfway up Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Grice was hired to appraise the island before it was handed over as a nature preserve. Owners get tax write-offs for such donations, with the amount tied to the value.
“A developer had carved it up into 3-acre lots but there was a problem: The whole island is migrating westward. I found a 1740 map that showed how much it’s moved: an average of 23 feet a year. It’s sort of rolling over on itself.”
Lots on one end eventually vanish even as new land appears on the other end.
“And that’s clearly a big problem for home building,” Grice says. “I had to figure out how to value the diminishing value of the property, like you would a quarry or a sand pit.”
Grice is happy to share the basics of how he arrived at various bottom lines - a rattle of appraisal formulas and concepts fully grasped by few outside his industry - but he won’t divulge dollar figures. Confidentiality is a long-ingrained habit, part of the deal.
The only amount he seems willing to even vaguely reveal was for Crozet Tunnel, a nearly mile-long railroad tunnel through the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville. In 1850, crews using hand tools and black powder started on opposite sides and eventually met in the middle, a feat of engineering marvel.
Grice appraised the tunnel in 2003 when the railroad was donating it to the county for a rails-to-trails project.
“I really had to mull that one,” he says. “It’s historic yes, but basically, it’s just a hole. National park on one side. Well-heeled neighbors on the other.”
He settled on a highest-and-best-use approach. What industries other than a railroad could actually use something like this tunnel?
“I realized it would be good for fiber optic communications and could save the right company a lot of money, so I valued it like that. Around $2 million.”
For Chesapeake Light Tower, 13 miles off Cape Henry, he discovered a simpler method.
“Lighthouses are valued by the number of beds,” he says, shaking his head with wonder. “Who knew, right?”
The government was considering auctioning the light tower. Others have sold to private buyers who “make them into really cool getaways,” Grice says. “And the common denominator has been: How many people can they sleep? That one has seven staterooms. Sure not easy to get to, though.”
Industrial properties like coal terminals need appraisals when they try to lower their property taxes. The value of such operations can fluctuate widely with the price of the commodity they handle.
When a Newport News coal yard tried to get its taxes reduced, the only comps Grice could find were in Canada and Australia.
“Similar facilities,” he says, “but why was the one in Canada valued at a lot less than the one in Australia?”
Forehead smack. Bitter weather shutters the one in Canada for nearly half the year.
“Had to adjust my figures for ice then.”
Naturally, his job can ruffle feathers. He jokes that his photo hangs on the wall in certain city assessor offices, with a warning “not to help to this guy. He’s cost us too much money.”
Once, a property owner angry about losing his place to a Nimmo road-widening in Virginia Beach answered his door with a shotgun.
“Eminent domain cases are tough,” Grice says. “If people will let me explain - and this guy eventually did - that I’m trying to make sure they get just compensation, they’ll usually come around.”
Or at least put down the gun.
Grice has helped assemble parcels for eight state parks, including False Cape; air easements for Oceana and Fentress naval fields; habitat for threatened species; scenic views for the Appalachian Trail.
“That’s probably the one I’m the proudest of,” he says of Virginia’s portion of the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. “Such a gift for the future, and no one was displaced from their land.”
Like this day in this backyard, AP Grice & Son - the oldest real estate appraisal firm in southeastern Virginia - is fading away.
Automated valuation models are changing the industry, pushing humans aside. And Grice is the “end of the line” anyway - still licensed but largely retired, with no Number V to take up the reins.
Other passions are filling his time. Gardening, cooking, home projects with his wife, Sandra. Studying maps of ancient waterways, poking through the past for answers - only now for questions that could just be bugging him.
He’d like to pinpoint the site of a particular Indian village that once existed in the area. Or the exact location of Norfolk’s old quarantine house and the graveyard that absorbed its dead.
Just for the sake of knowing.
Classic rock wafts across the patio from somewhere. Bushes and bulbs are stirring to life. Grice is showing his collection of arrow heads. And offering a jar of homemade marmalade that tastes “like sunshine.”
Worse ways to spend an afternoon indeed.
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