Matrix Blog

Law, Ethics & Fraud

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

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

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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 |

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

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

occheader

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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[Appraisal Infographic] Common Myths About The Homebuying Process

March 15, 2014 | 1:07 pm |

The Appraisal Foundation published an appraisal infographic that attempts to clarify common misconceptions by the borrowers about the appraiser’s role in the home buying process. The content is amazingly simplistic, but that’s the point.

I continue to be amazed at how so few people don’t understand what the appraiser’s role is in the home buying process. Perhaps this is why the appraisal industry continues to be marginalized in the lending process (ie appraisal management companies, Appraiser Independence Requirements) and the exodus of competent appraisers into other disciplines outside of residential mortgages continues.

2014-03-06-BorrowersinfographicTAF

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Best Real Estate Lawsuit Prose EVER

February 24, 2014 | 1:20 pm |

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Here’s an excerpt from a recent lawsuit for a NYC property that struck me as high art (modified to keep parties private).

…During the same timeframe in which the Sponsor insisted it was unable to restore service to the Condominium, it was somehow possible to locate and rescue 33 trapped miners in a remote region of Chile.

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Talking Heads: Burning Down The House, S&P Style

February 5, 2013 | 4:48 pm | nytlogo |

As the credit world was unraveling around them, email communications between analysts at S&P seems to be pretty damming to their neutrality position. And finally now the lawsuit. There’s a fascinating re-write of the great Talking Heads song “Burning Down The House” by an S&P analyst.

I’ve got the entire Talking Heads catalogue on my iPhone and I’ll bet that David Byrne and the rest of the ‘Heads never imagined their music would used to describe a global credit bubble.

Here is the S&P email with the revised lyrics – as the credit world was imploding…

“With apologies to David Byrne…here’s my version of “Burning Down the House”

“Watch out
Housing market went softer
Cooling down
Strong market is now much weaker
Subprime is boi-ling o-ver
Bringing down the house

Hold tight
CDO biz — has a bother
Hold tight
Leveraged CDOs they were after
Going — all the way down, with
Subprime mortgages

Own it
Hey you need a downgrade now
Free-mont
Huge delinquencies hit it now
Two-thousand-and-six-vintage
Bringing down the house.”

Wow. Their other songs like “Wild Wild Life”, “Road to Nowhere”, and “Psycho Killer” might have also done the trick.

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Divorce Valuations: Appraiserville Meets Splitsville

December 1, 2012 | 7:00 am | wsjlogo | Public |

In this week’s WSJ Mansion section there was a nice write up by Alyssa Abkowitz about the appraisal process during a divorce: Appraisers in Splitsville. Our firm does a lot of this type of consulting and we find working with attorneys much easier than dealing with retail banks.

I also find that it’s a small world – I know nearly all the appraisers in my market personally (only a handful are active in this segment). Most are professional and knowledgable but like any profession, there are a few hacks.

The challenge in the divorce appraisal business is the challenge of proper communication between the parties – the slightest miscue can snowball into a huge complicated mess billable by the hour. The key to valuation in this process is to filter out the personal element of it and just do the appraisal. When working for one party, the appraiser never gets the whole story and magically “you’re not always on the ‘right’ side so don’t concern yourself with the details beyond the valuation.” Professionals are the ones that do their job devoid of personal bias.

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Fraud Never Sleeps – 2 Contractors Sentenced

June 11, 2012 | 3:30 pm |

I got this announcement relayed by REBNY from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. who “has made addressing illegal activity in the contracting community a high priority.”

Here’s the AP story.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office says the men claimed they were from the supposed “Committee on Contract Compliance” and threatened to report bogus violations if they weren’t paid off. They arrived at job sites with clipboards, video cameras and hardhats.

I don’t usually post this stuff on Matrix but the narrative was fascinating. Check it out:




2 get prison in NYC ‘contract compliance’ scheme [My FoxNY]

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