Matrix Blog

Appraising

My First Post: July 31, 2005 APM Marketplace Radio’s “Appraising the Appraiser”

June 18, 2014 | 10:21 am | Milestones |

APMmarketplace logo

It is hard to believe it has been nearly 9 years since I wrote my first blog post. Back then I was very frustrated with real estate world around me. The housing market was booming and my appraisal competitors were increasing their staff size by a multiple of 20 (they’re now essentially out of business). We weren’t part of the (fool’s) gold rush.

Apparently I had missed a key math and ethics class in school that would help me understand what was happening and why it was happening. Everyone seemingly was losing losing their minds – appraisers, consumers, banks, rating agencies, investment banks, investors – to a word – everyone. It didn’t help that national appraisal organizations, all of whose memberships had been dropping since appraisal licensing was introduced in 1991, did not understand or were not willing to speak out about the obvious problem. Appraisers were not allowed/not able to be a neutral valuation experts for lenders to make informed decisions on lending/risk of their collateral – lenders just didn’t care because they could off-load the risk to investors around the globe. The appraisal industry was converted nearly overnight to “deal enablers.”

I saw my career ending in 3 years if I didn’t do something. I did the only thing I could think of – start talking openly about the lack of independence the appraisal industry had at that time (amazingly, how little has changed in this regard). No appraisers I were aware of were speaking openly about the problem in 2004-2005 – our industry was living in constant fear of alienating their lender clients. Since I was losing lender clients to my rapidly growing competitors who were morally flexible, I really had nothing to lose.

My first blog post was a June 23, 2005 interview with Bob Moon at APM Marketplace in a segment called “Appraising the Appraisers” My industry was a symptom of a larger problem that eventually crushed the global economy – a credit crunch.

The original APM audio link is now broken but I have it here (I hope APM doesn’t mind).


It’s a time capsule and (I believe) worth a listen.

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AMC Structure Systematically Pushes Good Appraisers Out of Business

June 13, 2014 | 2:25 pm |

dangerhighpressure

Good appraisers are unable to compete with the fly-by-night form fillers that proliferate the AMC industry.

We have done some work for the AMC of a global bank who provides mortgages in Manhattan when they are willing to pay the market rate for appraisal services. They send us requests to appraise a variety of co-op apartments in Manhattan. We recently received an appraisal request for a very large co-op apartment in a unique building (property probably worth well over $10M). The AMC offered a generic fee which is roughly 1/3 the local market rate for this type of property.

We sent them a request to be paid the market rate and was then asked to make an “exception request” and explain the reason for the higher fee so they can go back to the borrower to get approval. We are nearly always rejected.

Problem 1: Conflict of Interest Unbelievably the AMC is aligned with the borrower’s interest in cost savings without concern for quality. The AMC is in business to manage the appraisal process and therefore help protect the bank’s exposure to risk. When you get right down to it, the only value-add an AMC provides to a bank is cost containment (and they are not cheaper than banks doing it themselves) so why would an AMC be incentivized to allow the appraiser to collect a fair fee? It makes them look ineffective at cost containment.

Problem 2: Paying Lip Service to Quality The reason an appraiser is requesting a higher fee is the complexity of the assignment. What else would it be? Yet we have to write a specific request to this property which we haven’t inspected yet. In reality, the next appraiser on the conveyor belt will be selected and given a higher rating for being cooperative. This is a sham process – it is merely a way to document the appraisal process in case the regulators show up.

Here’s the standard BS response that this AMC gave to our request – this AMC is located in a rural location in the upper reaches of the northeastern US – they are concerned whether the borrower would feel comfortable paying a higher fee on a 50% cash co-op building on Park Avenue. The sender is a clerical (non-appraiser) individual who is giving the appraiser the following boilerplates response and doesn’t really understand what they are saying:

When you became an approved appraiser, you agreed to follow the processes and procedures required by [XXXXXX] by signing our Engagement Letter. We require all vendors to submit a fee exception form when they feel the work is outside of the norm. We need that information to justify your fee request to our borrowers. We are not looking to force an appraiser to complete work at low fees, we are looking to provide the best possible work at the best possible price for our borrowers. We expect that you are the expert in your market and we are looking for your expertise and explanation to make our borrowers understand why the fee may be warranted. However, we also expect the fee to accurately reflect the work involved and borrowers have the right to refuse to pay that fee and request that another appraiser be assigned. While, it may be frustrating for our appraisers, it is our current system and all of our vendors are required to follow the process.

No, it’s insanity.

Question How much do you think this clerical person understands about our specific submarket and whether they understand how much another appraiser who will work for a lowball fee does understand about our specific market?

Answer Nothing. This is merely canned comment process designed to blunt the impact of an investigation by a regulator in the future.

Here are a few other thoughts on this whole sham process:

Why Appraiser Robots Rule The World of AMCs
- In a market like Manhattan, especially for a substantial property, you could say that there is no such thing as a standard property and fees are based things like time spent on the assignment and the experience needed to handle the complexity….unless you see appraisers as robots and every assignment is the same.
- Beyond saying things like this is a unique property with limited data and would take a longer time to work on to provide a credible result aren’t enough to justify a higher fee to a borrower who wants to keep the fee low. Does the bank (AMCs client) even understand that this is happening?

So what would help an appraiser get a fee approval of any kind from this AMC? Here are a few reasons I might use next time when I have to substantiate a higher than generic appraisal fee:
-There are attack dogs in the building lobby that we have to run from and I am expecting them to tear at my clothes and force me to seek out significant medical attention.
-The flooring of the co-op apartment is believed to be covered with shards of glass and we therefore have to buy steel toed work boots to do the inspection.
-The occupant is known to carry a weapon, having assaulted visitors and did jail time as a result – so we need to buy a Kevlar vest

You get the idea. Good grief.

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RAC: The Best Appraisers in North America

June 11, 2014 | 5:36 pm | raclogo | Videos |

Really! This short intro video accurately portrays the RAC organizational culture and why I love these people.

I am a long time member of RAC, an appraisal organization that specializes in complex residential properties. It was founded in 1990 to focus on the relocation subset of residential appraising but this is not a mutually exclusive point. An appraiser who provides high quality relocation appraisals also provides high quality appraisals for complex residential assignments. Most of our members do a lot of appraisal work outside of the relocation universe.

For Miller Samuel, relocation appraisal work has never been a large part of our practice given our New York market location but the draw to retain my membership has remained powerful.

Here are some thoughts:

For Appraisers – RAC is nominally priced, full of incredible experienced people and most important, absent the crazy appraisal politics that have nothing to do with making someone a more valuable appraisal professional. Check us out.

For Financial Institutions – If you ever need a resource to get the best residential real estate appraisers in the country, you simply need to check out RAC. And if our organization doesn’t have coverage in a specific market you are interested in, we’d be happy to recommend someone to you.

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[London Calling] ‘Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel’ New Development Edition

June 9, 2014 | 10:41 am |

mikemulliganss

I read Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel nearly every night to my 4 sons when they were younger (probably an unnecessary qualifier). It was also my favorite children’s book as a kid.

As it turns out, this story preempted current London construction methodology (h/t boingboing.net).

So, many of the squares of the capital’s super-prime real estate, from Belgravia and Chelsea to Mayfair and Notting Hill, have been reconfigured house by house. Given that London’s strict planning rules restrict building upwards, digging downwards has been the solution for owners who want to expand their property’s square-footage.

mikemulligandig

This trend reflects the appraisal concept of highest and best use for the equipment despite the inherent wastefulness. Does it make sense to leave the equipment in the basement? With all the concern in the US about below grade empty oil tanks and the environment, I wonder how this practice is allowed, cost effectiveness aside.

Given the exceptional profits of London property development, why bother with the expense and hassle of retrieving a used digger – worth only £5,000 or £6,000 – from the back of a house that would soon be sold for several million? The time and money expended on rescuing a digger were better spent moving on to the next big deal.

You really need to read the book.

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Spectacular TED Talk on The US Financial Crisis: How it Happened + How to Prevent

May 31, 2014 | 4:59 pm | Favorites |

Wlliam Black, a former bank regulator, made a TED Talk last fall that I wish I had made (but I couldn’t be as eloquent although I have a cooler tie). It should be required viewing by anyone who is connected with the housing industry.

Black’s presentation lays out the financial crisis in the proper context. He provides the recipe for disaster for all to see and it is NOT complicated to understand. Change the perverse incentives and a lot of this goes away. So many opportunities to avoid this crisis were missed.

And this is the first time I’ve heard someone talk about the unrelenting pressure that banks (and mortgage brokers) placed on appraisers, essentially forcing our industry to either make the number of get out of town. By 2007, 90% of appraisers said they were coerced by banks to make the number. That seems low to me. It had to be 100% or else those 10% of appraisers were living in a cave.

I’ll be returning to this video periodically for the foreseeable future as a reminder.

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Room 666: Providing court testimony as an expert witness makes you better

May 21, 2014 | 9:54 am |

door666

I took the photo of this door in NYS Supreme Court yesterday and it got me thinking about quality of “experts” as did this.

In a perfect world, any appraiser or analyst (in any profession) should be forced to provide expert witness testimony in court at least once – covering a paper they’ve written, research they have presented, an opinion they’ve formed, a sales pitch they’ve developed, heck even a blog post they’ve posted.

I actually like providing testimony and our firm does a fair amount of this work for our clients. Getting grilled for hours and even days by lawyers trying only to chip away at your credibility in front of others provides amazing clarity to the way you approach your analysis and profession (aside from being exhausting).

Many talking heads that opine on a housing market, a stock, a court case, etc. often aren’t tested to fully articulate their thoughts, assuming they are even thinking. Hence, BS reigns.

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Floored: Can/Should A Governing Body Set Minimum Sales Prices?

May 6, 2014 | 2:47 pm |

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The concept of “setting a price floor” applies to gated communities, homeowner associations, planned unit developments – in fact any situation where a central governing body has direct influence over the sales price and/or buyer of your property. I believe the idea of “setting price floors” is surprisingly common in the outer boroughs of NYC, especially Queens.

Let me back up a second to provide context.

As the Manhattan market peaked in 2007/2008, we began to observe some co-op boards setting floors to prices in their buildings to “maintain value” for their shareholders. While a fiduciary responsibility, it is steeped in contradictions to free market principles. There was a great New York Times summary piece about this practice back in June 2007: “Should Co-op Boards Set ‘Floor Prices’?

About 15 months after the NYT article was written Lehman Brothers had collapsed and AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were all bailed out. Manhattan sales prices had fallen about 30% from 2008 to 2009. During this period I observed an increase in the practice of setting price floors. A hypothetical scenario (the type I often observed first hand) for – let’s call it – “Apartment XXX” and the timeline might go something like this:

  • Sold in 8/2007 for $1,000,000
  • Listed in 8/2008 for $1,100,000
  • Zero activity until 1/2009, offered $700,000. Offer rejected by shareholder.
  • Offer made by new buyer in 2/2009, offered $705,000. Offer rejected by shareholder.
  • Offer made by new buyer in 3/2009, offered $700,000. Offer accepted by shareholder.
  • Board turndown – “price too low.”
  • Offer made by new buyer in 4/2009, offered $695,000. Offer rejected by shareholder.
  • Offer made by new buyer in 5/2009, offered $710,000. Offer accepted by shareholder.
  • Board turndown – “price too low.”
  • Taken off market by shareholder.

A co-op board CAN’T dictate sales prices
It is clear from the steady stream of new offers in my hypothetical that the market had reset to a significantly lower level during the year. If that was the case (it was), then the board was actually doing a disservice to their shareholders by making their apartments essentially unsaleable. A buyer isn’t going to pay what the seller or the board wants the price to be. Econ 101. Housing market prices change over time, hopefully rising more than falling in the long run. The brokerage community also has a fiduciary responsibility to get the highest price for their seller under market conditions at that time. Although the board is trying to protect their shareholders (and themselves as shareholders), they have in effect, temporarily nullified the market in their building. The brokerage community is less likely to bring offers to sellers because they assume the board will reject the price even though the property had been properly exposed and vetted in the marketplace.

A co-op board CAN protect their shareholder against price outliers
One of the misnomers of the “setting a price floor” discussion is the fact that appraisal quality for lenders has been decimated since the financial crisis as banks now fully rely on appraisal management company ie “AMC” appraisers and most have no “local market knowledge.” An out of market appraiser will likely be more influenced by outliers than a local appraiser because the out of market appraiser is data starved and has no experience in the nuances of that market. It is clearly prudent for a board to be vigilant about outliers as reflected in the video. I’ve consulted on transactions for boards that don’t represent market value – ie the heir or executor lives on the other side of the country, doesn’t care about the market value and simply wants to dump the unit, make some money and move on. The out of market appraiser will probably use that sale as a “comp.”

“Protecting against outliers” is very different than “controlling prices” in a market.

In the outer boroughs especially in Queens, I believe the practice of setting a price floor has remained a widespread practice for years. Here’s a co-op attorney who is providing tips on how to “maintain values” on Habitat Magazine‘s web site. Concepts like setting up “sliding scales” to sell at 95% of the average of past sales may work in a stable market but worry me because the co-op won’t be able to respond to downturns and is in danger of choking off the market, potentially depressing prices even more.

This video also talks about apartments being different in condition and boards need to consider this because real estate appraisers don’t take into consideration whether or not an apartment was renovated.

No! This is absolutely an incorrect or the appraiser is not being asked to provide an opinion of market value – appraisers are supposed to take condition into consideration if they are being requested to provide an opinion of market value.

As I mentioned earlier, with the proliferation of AMCs, appraisers working for retail banks are generally being paid 50% of the market rate and can’t or won’t confirm condition of their comps. Higher up banking executives don’t yet equate appraisal fees with appraisal quality.

“Maintaining Value” in a co-op (or multi-unit housing entity with a governing body) Here are a few (non-legal) valuation thoughts on “maintaining” values in a co-op. I’ve personally always taken this to mean that the corporation is run efficiently for the benefit of the shareholders and when that happens, property values are “maintained” relative to the market. I also believe their values will ebb and flow with the world that surrounds the building – ie supply, demand, credit, interest rates, economy, employment, etc. These are outside factors tend to be things that the board has no control over. If the board takes actions to control “market forces” they can potentially damage shareholder value and they are potentially not fulfilling their fiduciary responsibilities.

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Combinations: Creating a Larger Manhattan Co-op or Condo

April 20, 2014 | 5:58 pm |

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Over my career, I’ve have observed a higher frequency of combination apartments (ie co-ops or condos) when inventory is tight.  A combination apartment is simply the connecting of 2 or more adjacent apartments (to either side, above or below).  It may be easier and/or less expensive to buy the apartment next door to create a larger space (even if you have to overpay for it) than to brave the tough market searching for a larger place to live.

A few years ago I started to track this during the preparation of the Elliman Report: Manhattan Sales. I looked at the actual apartment numbers and counted those that suggested they were combined. I am clearly omitting apartment nomenclature that is not so clear ie 7AB is renamed 7A, so my results are conservative.  The above chart reflects the recent trend of more combinations being sold but doesn’t necessarily equate to more being created, so new combinations would only be considered a subset of this data.

I’ve dubbed the phenomenon “1 + 1 = 2.5” because there is a premium for larger contiguous space.

I’ve always thought co-op or condo building that allow combinations (nearly all do) as providing a potential way for shareholders to realize value upside, thereby enhancing the price structure of a building ie higher values rub off on other apartments in the same building.

Some top line ideas about combinations

  • No shares are lost and in fact, many combinations  result in the acquisition of dormant common hallway space providing additional revenue in perpetuity to the corporation and a cash infusion from the purchase price.
  • Larger units sell for more on a ppsf basis (ie my formula above) potentially influencing higher values for other units.
  • A few less apartments in the mix is a non-issue (ie risk) in a building this size, unlike, say a 4 unit brownstone.
  • I’ve always thought it wise to keep the stock certificates separate to give the buyers and co-op more flexibility, but I see this done both ways (and admittedly don’t understand any legal nuances on this point.)

Some other more granular thoughts

Some layouts don’t work
- Not all combo layouts make sense or provide value upside.
- Layouts tend to work better in pre-war and new developments than post-wars.
- 1980s condos often often the least combinable layouts – ie a side by side 1 bedrooms.
- Over the last decade, developers have kept this in mind during construction to give them more flexibility during the sales process.

Higher value per square foot
- Creating larger apartments creates value upside to existing space ie “1+1=2.5″
- Sometimes large combos can be oversized for the building and there is no ppsf premium for the larger space.
- When a an owner of a large unit buyers the adjacent unit, the mere fact that the same unit owner owns both usually results in a ppsf premium before renovations are made to connect.
- The upside in value for a smaller apartment, means that a buyer can overpay for the unit as an individual sale but the addition of the smaller unit to the large unit adds value to both units on a ppsf.
- The highest value is realized when the buyer can’t tell the layout was comprised of two different units.  Simply creating a door between two apartments would realize the least upside.

That second kitchen
- The biggest “tell” on a combo is the existence of a second kitchen.
- They are often converted to a laundry room or bathroom, taking advantage of the utility connections.
- Buildings might object to the removal of the second kitchen because it may impact the building Certificate of Occupancy – I defer to lawyers on this point.

What do lenders think?
- Some banks are scared of combinations and others are not.
- In my experience banks require financing on the whole apartment – if they have a loan using collateral of one of the apartments, they will require that it be replaced with a new mortgage to cover both apartments.
- Banks often get confused on the value of a combo asking the appraiser to provide a value for each of the separate apartments before they are combined. The problem with that position is that the combination is usually worth more as one apartment (even before considering improvements) – in other words, the sum of the parts is less than the whole and the bank will incorrectly assume the collateral is inadequate.

Maintenance fees
- Many agents tell me it is assumed that maintenance charges are skewed higher for combos. I can’t prove this, all other things being equal.  When it occurs, it’s probably for reasons other than simply combining the units.
- A combo in a small building, ie a 4-unit brownstone co-op, raises the risk to the remaining shareholders if the combo shareholder stops paying their maintenance charges. Risk exposure to a mid to large sized building should be nominal.

Common Area
- Quite often hallways are purchased and incorporated into a combo layout for a better result.
- The co-op wins by getting a cash infusion for the purchase and income in perpetuity for the additional share allocation from the common area purchase.

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Regulators Turn Focus on AMCs, Proposals Include Hiring “Competent” Appraisers

March 26, 2014 | 12:43 am | Milestones |

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The OCC and an alphabet soup of 5 additional regulators: FDIC, CFPB, FHFA, NCUA and the Federal Reserve issued a joint press release that if adopted, takes a small step forward in the regulation of appraisal management companies, who are largely responsible for the collapse of valuation quality since the credit crunch began.

To many, this action is long overdue. Appraisal management companies control the vast majority all mortgage appraisals in the US, having been legitimized by HVCC back in May 2009. I’ve burned a lot of calories over the past several years pointing out the problems with the AMC industry so admittedly it is nice to see them getting attention. The fact that these institutions are not licensed to do business at a statewide level but the appraisers who provide the valuation expertise they manage is inconsistent at best.

Still, the recognition of this regulatory glitch probably won’t have a significant impact on appraisal quality provided by AMCs. As my friend Joe Palumbo maintains, is like fool’s gold.

I think proposal is at least a starting point.

A couple of highlights – regulators would:

  • Require that appraisals comply with the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (today we had a clerical AMC staffer tell us that writing out the math calculations on the floor plan was a requirement of USPAP).
  • Ensure selection of a competent and independent appraiser. (It is unbelievable to think this is necessary but it does make the legal exposure a little larger for AMCs.)

Housingwire has a good recap of the proposed regulations and so does the Wall Street Journal provides a nice overview (I gave them background for the piece).

The proposal by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Reserve and other regulators mandates that appraisal-management companies hired by federally regulated banks use only state-licensed appraisers with “the requisite education, expertise, and experience necessary” to complete appraisals competently.

Moral hazard There is no significant financial incentive for lenders to stop accepting the generally poor quality appraisals the AMC industry presents them daily. The hope is that the additional regulatory largess the AMCs have to confront will force the issue with lenders simply because the AMCs will have to raise their fees. Without a real “value-add” to the banks other than cost control and fast turn times, the lack of quality for a large swath of AMCs may no longer be overlooked by banks. Yes I can dream.

Residential appraisers, mostly 1-2 person shops, have largely been left without a voice and the bigger financial institutions have lobbied financial reform overtop of us without the regulators truly understanding what our role should to be to protect the taxpayer from excessive risk.

Anumber of smart appraisers I know have created a petition whose sole purpose is the get the attention of the CSFB to address the issue of “customary and reasonable” fees. Our industry has no other way to reach the regulators or the ability to lobby our views in Washington. I hope they are listening.

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[AppWatch] RoomScan – An Easy Way to Create A Floorplan

March 23, 2014 | 11:38 am |


roomscan I stumbled on to this iPhone app from the Locometric called RoomScan – to measure rooms, create floor plans , calculate square footage on the fly. I was really impressed with the free version and quickly upgraded to the $4.99 pro version to be able to create doorways and connecting rooms. This may soon replace the $500 laser measuring device I’ve hauled around for years.

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An ah-hah moment indeed.

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