Lone Wolves: Appraisers Fighting Everyone, Including Appraisers

September 27, 2014 | 2:20 pm | Milestones |

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A few days ago I published a critical piece on the appraisal industry for Bloomberg View called Guess What’s Holding Back Housing.

There are many great people, incredible talents and solid organizations within the appraisal profession. But in my opinion only 20% of the industry are truly competent professionals and the remainder are merely varying degrees of form fillers.

I have been an appraiser for 28 years and it is apparent that the industry is dying a death of a thousand knives. One of the key reasons for this slow death is the lack of national leadership and the extreme fragmentation since most appraisal shops are comprised of a single or just a handful of professionals. I’d also like to offer that the majority of our profession seem very willing to make unsupported negative inferences on reviews of a colleague’s work such as appraisal field reviews or troll columns like mine.

Like I said, 80% of the profession are really not professional. Many of these appraisers have not looked up from their clipboards in quite a while and take an objective look at the world around them.

I have found appraisers throughout my career to be hyper defensive about the quality of their own work (I am definitely one of them on occasion). Just ask any bank review appraiser what it was like to call an appraiser out on an unsupported analysis. And just ask any appraiser what it is like to get meaningless criticisms from a bank appraisal reviewer over nothing germane to the value opinion.

A few week’s ago a colleague sent me a link to the first empirical study on the impact of HVCC on the appraisal profession by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. The thrust of the study was the analysis of “low appraisals.”

When I used the term “low appraisals” in my piece combined with their editors choice of post titles: Guess What’s Holding Back Housing all bets were off.

It was “game on”, yet I’m in the appraisal trenches with all of them. The most amazing thing about the adverse reaction was that most of the appraisers who trolled the comment section or sent me scathing emails never read the Fed’s working paper on the analysis which was the basis of the post. The core of the working paper is only about 10 pages double spaced in length yet they were more willing to troll a colleague than undertake a professional debate.

I could chalk this unprofessional reaction to the battering our industry has taken over the past decade – I certainly feel that way – but it doesn’t explain everything. Because our industry has no real voice in related public policy, we continue to be marginalized by robotic institutional processes such as AMCs, AVMs and upper management that still sees our services as merely a cost center.

When I received the first email troll comment, I queried his email address and called him up right away. He was surprised that I found his phone number but we had a pleasant discussion. He was concerned that I would out him.

I exchanged emails with several of the email ranters and the replies were much more civil. I also did this with a few of the commenters on the post.

Although the majority of these responses are rambling rants, they shed some light on the state of the appraisal profession.

Take a look at a sample (I redacted their last names, firm names and contact info):

Hello Jonathan- I’ve heard good things about your firm and its work, so I am doubly shocked by the headline in your article “Guess What’s Holding Back Housing,” and the implication that somehow appraisers are to blame for the sluggish pace of the housing recovery. There’s no question mark at the end of the “Housing.” It’s not a question, but more of an accusation. You do know we’ve been through a severe recession, don’t you? That in spite of the increase in employment that has taken place we have created a lot of part-time jobs and done away with a lot of high-paying full-time jobs. Labor force participation is way down. You do know that lending standards have tightened? Are you aware of these facts? I ask that because your article conveys ZERO understanding of any of these fundamentals. The term “Low Appraisals” manages to be erroneous and stigmatizing at the same time. That an appraisal is “low” tells me nothing about the quality of the appraisal. It may be a great appraisal. It may be a terrible appraisal. It says nothing about whether the appraisal conforms to regulatory guidelines and industry standards and is a credible opinion of market value. I NEVER use that term when referring to an appraisal. I have dealt with many irate customers throughout the years and I always take the time to explain to people what an appraiser is supposed to do – which the general public frequently does not understand. The term “low appraisals” is also stigmatizing. If “low” appraisals are “holding back housing,” well that is not a good thing, is it? As a leader in an industry which is poorly understood by the general public, I am saddened that you would take the space granted to you to further the misconceptions people have about appraisers and what we do. It is NOT our job to “make” or “hit” a number. When we make that the job is when the problems start happening. You could have explained to Bloomberg’s readers that appraisers have to weigh an offer for a property in light of market evidence. If the evidence to support the sale price is not there, an appraiser is doing his or her job in NOT “hitting the number.” Your use of the “low appraisal” term suggests that the appraisal is somehow flawed. If the appraisal is flawed, it is not because it is “low” but because it does not incorporate appropriate data and/or analysis. In all my time in the appraisal industry I have always offered irate clients a change to point to specific, substantive errors or omissions in any appraisal when they do not agree with its findings. The overwhelming majority of the time the client, or broker, or other interested party has nothing to say. They are angry because the number is “too low.” They don’t know or care if the appraisal is well done or poorly done. All they care about is that it is “low.” I hope you will use your prominent position in the industry and your access to publications such as Bloomberg to speak the truth about what appraisers are do, not further misconceptions. Sincerely William

I called William directly and we spoke at length.

How can you, a highly recognized real estate appraiser, write an article for Bloomberg suggesting that appraisers are partially responsible for the weak housing market when the quality of the appraisal reports was not analyzed? How can anyone, or an agency make such a suggestion if the reports weren’t analyzed? I am a retired general real estate appraiser who reviewed many reports and to do so required a knowledge of the real estate market in which the report was prepared. In my own opinion, again without an analysis of any reports, it is more likely that the appraisers are better now and are NOT trying to hit the target as was the case prior to the 2006, 2007 blowup because they are under so much scrutiny from the lenders. For example, no more calling an average property “above average with no repairs necessary” when, in fact, the property has a few problems. The local appraiser group has shrunk as the worst ones are no longer in business, as is the case of many of the unscrupulous lenders who employed them.

My response to the above:

Hi Thomas,

Thanks for sending the note.

It’s actually quite easy to write about it. I disagree with your observations about today’s quality. It is very poor.

I have reviewed thousands of residential appraisals, been an expert in a number of national litigation cases and the quality right now is just as bad as it was during the boom, but different. The Fed study I referred to in the piece inferred a quality problem as a result of the metrics presented. Talented professionals like I’m sure you were are no longer entering the industry.

Yes the mortgage broker-orientated appraisers are largely gone now but the new generation of appraisers working for AMCs are just as bad, but in the opposite direction. Now we have an industry working for half the market rate who need to cut corners to be able to complete the report. With AMC’s it is much more common for the appraiser to be missing local market knowledge and to drive much farther to their assignment.

Mortgage appraisers today who work for AMCs tend to be biased low because they don’t know their market area cold which is just as bad as being biased high back during the boom.

I want our industry to provide a neutral well research product. The problem is the the clients don’t care and see us as a commodity rather than a profession.

Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Thomas did not respond.

Jonathan, Summarized: Appraisers were responsible for the housing bust AND now for holding back progress in the housing market. Funny how that is……..that so many cover the above as truth and that few actually write about the actual purpose of the appraisal process. I suppose it would be harder to headline an article like that and draw readers in. I enjoyed this part in particular; “The quality of appraisal reports wasn’t analyzed, but the paper suggests that it may have declined.” I look forward to reading more. Sincerely, Adam

My response to Adam:

Hi Adam

Summarized: you need to drop the righteous indignation lathered in sarcasm approach. It’s not productive unless you are merely a troll.

Otherwise I assume you are an accomplished appraiser. Would you like to discuss this tomorrow? I’d really appreciate dissecting the disconnect.

Let me know.

Adam did not respond. The more sarcastic the commentary, the more afraid appraisers like Adam are to engage in reasonable discussion.

I don’t think you have all the correct information. For only a $400 to $500 fee an appraiser will make sure I don’t pay too much for a house. Nor pay the real estate agent a 7% commission which on a $500,000 home would be $35,000. Nor pay $300,000 in interest to a mortgage company. So are “low ball” appraisals really the problem? Or were “inflated values” the problem? Or is it that appraisers keep the other guy honest? Sorry sir, but I want to not get ripped off! Bobby

My reply:

Bobby

Thanks for the reply. On a bank appraisal, the appraiser’s client is the bank, not the borrower – a common misunderstanding.

We had a continuing dialogue.

I just read the article on Bloomberg View and I have to say, as a certified real estate appraiser, I am a little offended. I know the graphs and the statistics show that there has been an increase of real estate sales and refinances that are killed by the appraisal. I also agree that the HVCC and later the Dodd-Frank Act has increased the number of what are called “low appraisals”. I think the problem myself and many other appraisers have is even the often incorrect use of the phrase “low appraisal” itself. As in all professions there are always going to be the few that don’t do the job correctly or even those who falsely skew the results. The other 98% of the appraisers out there are just giving the honest truth, as we are required to by our ethics and the law. Most appraisers including myself have a great respect for the fact that we are there to protect the borrower and the lender, or the seller and the buyer in the case of a sale. I have read many articles in realtor or mortgage professional trade magazines and online blogs about these “low appraisals” and the bad “low ball appraisers”. The story often goes like this; A realtor Jane Doe describes how “bad, low appraisals” have killed 4 of her last 10 sales. She says the problem has gotten worse and she has been a realtor for 20 years and appraisal quality is at an all time low. The truth is that most agents, like appraisers are honest professionals who are doing a good job. The issue is their job is to get a buyer and seller to agree on a price… so that they get what they want and money can be made. They are advocates for “brokering” the deal and work on commission. There are few checks and balances in that system, it is self regulated by the free market, which is great… most of the time. What sometimes happens is this: The house for sale is a nice 2,000 sf, 3 bed 2 bath ranch home in Niceville Subdivision, the seller feels his house is worth at least $250,000 and the buyer loves the house and they feel that $240,000 is the highest they can pay. The house goes under contract for $240,000 and 2 agents and 2 clients are happy… for now. Then when the appraisal comes back at $225,000 everyone thinks it is a low appraisal, 2 agents, 2 clients, 1 loan officer, etc. all want the house to be worth the agreed upon $240,000. The problem is the appraiser is doing his job and found that out of 30 total sales in Niceville S/D, 8 of them are similar ranch style homes that are in “average” to “very good” condition selling between $190,000 and $220,000. Most of the ones that best match the size, condition, # of garages, amenities, etc. have sold for about $215,000 after + & – adjustments are made for differences. That is what is known as “The MOST PROBABLE PRICE a property will bring in a competitive and open market”, not the highest price “if you get lucky”, or the price you can get “if the buyers are from out of town and don’t know the local market”. The scope of work we agree to is just that, the most probable price. Lenders want to know that if the loan stops performing that they actually own something that is worth what they lent on it. If 90% of homes like the one in this case sell for $215,000 and I value it for $240,000 I have not done my job correctly. If the loan defaults 6 months later when the buyer losses his job and the bank loses money because they can’t find that rare buyer willing to pay too much, I have harmed them. If the buyer of that house gets relocated in 6 months and cannot sell it or has to take a loss when he realizes he can only get the usual $215,000, I have harmed him. The agents and loan officers that made the high commissions 6 months ago have nothing to fear, they did their job and got the deal done. The appraiser will be the one that will be getting the call from the attorneys. That is something that needs to be remembered. We are NOT paid on commission and our work is scrutinized by underwriters to test us constantly. It is in our best interest to do the right thing and value a property fairly, not too high or too low…. And that is what we do…. and get pressure in one direction or the other if values are going up or going down. That is why the average age appraiser is over 55 years old and few are joining the profession. Being a punching bag for doing the right thing gets old as fees go down gobbled up by the AMC’s that Cuomo forced on the industry as the cost of living, gas, business expenses, insurance, etc. goes up. P.S. Look at Cuomo’s involvement and gain, in creating a forced middleman in the modern appraisal industry. Regards, John

Thanks for your thoughtful reply John.

The phrase “low appraisal” was the metric selected by the Fed and the basis of the study. It strikes a nerve in appraisers and rightful so. They used it in a mechanical way versus the way NAR might complain that appraisers are killing their deals. Still, the appraisal quality of the industry is worse today compared to 10-20 years ago. Are there good appraisers out there? Of course. I am. You sound like you are. But the industry is dying and part of the reason, but not the entire reason, is us. We have no leadership and are simply being marginalized – the outcome in my opinion is a lower quality product that reduces the reliance on our industry.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

John replied again with a very well articulated description of the state of the appraisal industry.

I agree that we need to do more. In Louisiana we are pretty good about regulating AMC’s and there is a requirement for them to pay C&R fees but many still don’t. I am sorry if I sounded rude in my first e-mail but as you know the low appraisal thing strikes a nerve with most of us. I would love to see a large powerful national organization that truly advocates for appraisers the way NAR does for realtors. That would be the real answer. Getting most of us in one organization I agree is the problem since we are lone wolves in many ways.

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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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Manhattan Penthouse Co-op Sold For 2nd Highest PPSF in History

June 9, 2014 | 2:57 pm | Milestones |

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Real estate reporter Katherine Clark at the New York Daily News got the scoop on the $70,000,000 penthouse sale at 960 Fifth Avenue, the highest price ever paid for a Manhattan co-op apartment. Curbed New York lays out all the (pretty?) pictures.

The previous record was held by David Geffen, who paid $54,000,000 in 2012 for the Penthouse at 785 Fifth Avenue. Although the Geffen penthouse was renovated, it was 12,000 square feet, more than twice as large as the 5,500 square feet within the penthouse at 960 Fifth Avenue – that just sold for a record price of $70M.

To further illustrate how much more expensive this new record price actually is, take a look at the two highest Manhattan co-op sales prices achieved, but on a price per square foot basis:

David Geffen paid $4,500 psf for the penthouse at 785 Fifth Avenue for the then record price of $54,000,000.

Nassef Sawiris paid $12,727 psf for the penthouse at 960 Fifth Avenue for the new record price of $70,000,000. On a sales price basis, the new record is 29.6% higher than the old record of 2 years ago.

On a price per square foot basis, the record sale was 182.8% above the previous record sale price set two years ago.

With all the attention focused on the newish or new development residential condo market, the all-time price per square foot apartment record was set 2 years ago, around the time of the Geffen purchase.  A Russian oligarch paid $88,000,000 for Sandy Weill’s penthouse condo that works out to $13,049 per square foot. That record breaking sale was largely viewed as a market outlier, that the buyer overpaid as part of a larger divorce strategy – since it was 31% higher than the previous record in the year prior within the same building.

Some other oddities about this new record co-op sale at 960 Fifth Avenue:

  • The 960 Fifth Avenue co-op board is old world and I’ve heard it is fairly tough. As a general statement, it is not that common to see a foreign buyer at the high end of the market approved by a co-op board.
  • The news coverage suggested the buyer was slow to pay his taxes and negotiated a reduced amount with the government. This would be a concern for most co-op boards in terms of collecting maintenance charges in arrears from a foreign national if they stopped paying.

Since these conditions would probably make any high end co-op board nervous, perhaps this is a sign that shareholders (board members are also shareholders) are concerned about damaging potential property values by limiting the universe of people that would be able to afford these types of prices in this new market condition.

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The $100M+ US Home Sale Trifecta – Without NYC – 2014 Edition

May 6, 2014 | 5:23 pm | Milestones |

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With the $147M sale in East Hampton, NY, it has been a busy couple of weeks for the .0000000000000000001% of the home buying public in the US. With the 3rd US home sale to close above $100M in 2014, it has left many thinking – why isn’t NYC in the fray?

After all, NYC arguably legitimized the US “trophy sale” frenzy a few years ago when Sandy Weill sold his penthouse at 15 Central Park West to a Russian oligarch for double what he paid for it. I’ve argued that this $88M sale was the launchpad for the new trophy market in NYC even though the transaction appears to be a divorce strategy. After that sale closed, the subsequent trifecta of trophy sales back then seems relatively affordable now.

As journalists tell me…three data points make a trend.

2014 US Sales over $100M
$147,000,000 Further Lane, East Hampton, NY
$120,000,000 Copper Beech Farm, Greenwich, CT
$102,000,000 The Fleur de Lys, Los Angles, CA

So is the era of US $100M+ sales a trend?

Yes, although it is probably more accurate to call it a “phenomenon” than a trend.

In NYC? Eventually.

To a few real estate brokers I engaged with on this topic, the idea that NYC would see the $100m threshold broken in 2014 seemed inevitable, only because of this 2014 US trifecta. It is the belief that we are experiencing a momentum swing over the $100m threshold because 3 sales by May, compared to a sale a year means a shift.

Meh. I view this phenomenon as “product-specific” and not “location-specific.” There is a randomness to the locations where these sales occur. However I do believe the probability is high that NYC will see such a sale in the not too distant future.

Then again, does it really matter? Do these $100M+ sales have anything to do with the remainder of the US housing market? No they don’t. But it’s fun to talk about.

The Manhattan $1M Average Sales Price Threshold broken in 2007
I remember when the Manhattan $1M average sales price threshold was broken in 2007, foreign media went gaga, struggling to find a deeper meaning to housing. There wasn’t. I always viewed it as simply a number on the spectrum.

Affordable Irony
Definitive proof that I have “hipster” tendencies – my never ending search for irony.

Yesterday’s announcement of the 3rd US $100m+ sale was one of record breaking irony: the announcement of NYC mayor’s 10-year plan to create 200k affordable housing units. The need for affordable housing – low and middle income – has always challenged NYC. The mayor’s affordable housing plan “moon shot” as the New York Times has described it came out on the same day as the $147M East Hampton sale story broke. Irony.

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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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All I Want for Christmas…Is A Good Professional Referral and…

December 18, 2013 | 4:06 pm | Milestones |

…a new web site.

I haven’t posted to Matrix in over a month, by far my longest gap since I launched this in the summer of 2005. I love blogging, but technical problems have taken some of the fun out of it.

It goes like this. A little over a year ago I was looking to upgrade our web site millersamuel.com after a 10+ year run without a change. I also wanted to create a subscription service to make a lot more metrics available as well as consolidate other sites I had like the one for my podcast: The Housing Helix.

I was looking around for a web developer since the friends who built my old site had moved on to other full time jobs and didn’t have the time to commit to it. Taking in all the feedback from friends and colleagues I interviewed several candidates and went with a husband/wife consulting firm that had worked on sites for large companies including my friend’s firm. Their pricing was similar to the others I interviewed but I went with them because my friend highly recommended them.

Wow, I made an insanely big mistake.

Within a month after we began development, the practical cost to build the site appeared to quadruple (conservatively) what was agreed to. It was clear they were more interested in paying their developers first before worrying about creating what I had asked for.

The development process was like playing “telephone.” I wrote and mocked up my specs and gave it to the consultants. They told the designer and the designer created something disconnected from what I asked for. So I would view the new design and request all the changes so it reflected my branding, messaging etc. that had been covered in countless meetings and conversations. They would convey to the designer who would send me a link. They didn’t make most of the changes I had requested and usually went off in a different direction. After 15+ rounds of this for the home page alone, I would get a bill at 4x what it should have cost because the consultants couldn’t convey to the designer what I wanted yet I had to pay their vendors who charged me for it.

Question: If went into a Starbucks and ordered a drink but got the wrong one because the Barista wasn’t very good (theoretical only) at their job, would Starbucks charge me for 2 drinks because they had to remake it correctly? What if they did that 15 times??!!!

It became obvious that they didn’t have the technical skills to create the site so I fired them (in hindsight – waaaay too late) and asked my developer friend with the new full time job to cobble the site together so it could function – despite an awful internal structure, lots and lots of notes in Russian and useless code (as I found out later).

Suggestion to consultants once they get fired: Don’t send the client an email asking them to outline in writing all the problems that lead to the firing so they can fix the problem because they take the failure very seriously. As a client I had already been forced to request the same fixes over and over and over so I found it ridiculous that I had to explain yet one more thing. I didn’t.

We got super busy at Miller Samuel so I sat on a new web site design for a year, still stewing about how badly I was burned.

Somehow I happened to stumble into a great web developer and work is well underway on a new site. I consider myself lucky. These people are nice, but unlike my previous experience, I interact directly with the designer, programmer, tech person etc. through the Basecamp platform and can see progress evolving.

Now simply take my experience and do a “Find and Replace” on all instances of the word “consultant(s)”. Replace it with “appraiser”, “real estate agent”, “real estate broker”, “contractor” or “house painter” and it makes sense. Just because a friend or neighbor recommends someone for a service, don’t be blinded by it. Still do your homework and check into their abilities. I’ve learned that even personal referrals can be hit or miss (and expensive).

While I’m not updating my Matrix blog content until the new site is installed, I’ll soon be flooding all your feeds with housing insights in the new year (so rest up).


[Appraising The Decade] Miller Cicero’s 10-Year Anniversary

August 30, 2012 | 10:32 am | Milestones |

It’s officially been a decade since we launched our commercial valuation affiliate Miller Cicero, LLC and it’s been a great run so far. In appraiser years, it actually feels longer than a decade.

Our partner and co-founder in this commercial venture, John Cicero, MAI, CRE, FRICS with nearly 3 decades of valuation experience, runs the firm. Besides being a good friend and especially because he thinks I have a good sense of humor, is still one of the smartest guys I know in commercial valuation. He’s got a great executive team and staff providing commercial valuation expertise throughout the NYC metro area.

The commercial real estate world is a mess right now and Miller Cicero provides reliable neutral valuation insight to it’s clients. Give John a call.

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The Black Swan and Really, Really Dumb Smart People

March 31, 2009 | 12:22 am | irslogo | Milestones |

Sorry but I am in Manhattan Market Overview high gear prep mode – the report will be published later this week – so I am pretty lame on the content side for Matrix at the moment.

One of my semi-regular podcast downloads is Russ Robert’s EconTalk. This week he interviews Nassim Taleb , the author of Fooled by Randomness and the Black Swan of a few years ago. I own the latter, but I think the former is over my head. I’ve never heard him speak before. I have now listened to this podcast 3 times already and thoroughly enjoyed it. Also make sure you read the slew of comments posted to their site.

Nassim Taleb talks about the financial crisis, how we misunderstand rare events, the fragility of the banking system, the moral hazard of government bailouts, the unprecedented nature of really, really bad events, the contribution of human psychology to misinterpreting probability and the dangers of hubris. The conversation closes with a discussion of religion and probability.

On one hand I am very leery of people who suggest they have all the answers to a problem but not the solutions – Nouriel Roubini is another example – but Taleb’s arguments are compelling. After all, I think we all want to understand how so many smart people could be so utterly stupid for so long. If it wasn’t mortgages as a vehicle, it would have been something else.

I loved the ten year flood example given in the notes of the interview:

A ten year flood has a higher probability than a 100 year flood, but the 100 year flood will be massively more consequential. You care about the probability times the size of the impact, the expectation of these events. Small-probability events can have in some domains, fat-tailed domains, a big impact and we don’t know how to estimate them.

Here’s the compensation scenario and moral hazard – notes from the interview:

Were heads of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers not aware of how much they were gambling or did they not care how much they were gambling? Combination. Three things: 1. fooling themselves, psychological dimension. 2. Had an interest in building huge risks and tail because if you blow up every 10 years, you will make 9 bonuses and the 10th year someone will pay the cost, not you. Vicious: taxpayers are paying retrospectively for the bonuses of the first 9 years. Banks are insolvent, have lost more than their capital base, but managers have kept their bonuses. Some of them have been wiped out because they went a little further than normal blow-up cycle. What about the ones who didn’t do it? Lower returns year after year; now should be doing extremely well, but now unable to buy up some of the firms that have made the mistakes because the government is propping them up.

Aside: Speaking of dumb, how about the new space station named “Colbert” and video. To see the vote page and the number one suggested name – go here.


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Catch-22: Fannie Mae, AMCs and a $39 suit

March 22, 2009 | 12:00 am | Milestones |

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[In The Media] Theory Of Negative Milestones Means A New Beginning

November 9, 2008 | 8:30 pm | nytlogo | Milestones |

I have long believed in what I call the “theory of negative milestones.” There are seminal events that mark new periods of real estate activity. (both map mashups courtesy of NYT)

This weekend’s New York Times real estate cover story was based on my firm’s ongoing research of the Manhattan housing market. The content in the article was thoroughly fleshed out by my friend Noah over at Urban Digs so I won’t elaborate.

In 2008, the influence of the credit crunch has been characterized by various levels of impact on segments and a lower level of activity. Everyone who lives in Manhattan can feel it, especially those in the real estate brokerage business. The events of the past two months have marked a new milestone with the bailout of Frannie, the $700B stimulus package, collapse of Lehman, the purchase of Merrill, the reclassification of Morgan and Goldman to commercial bank status, aggressive actions including cutting rates by the Fed, a culmination of 22 months of campaigning, a new party taking over the executive branch and gaining power in Congress. In other words, change.

The promise or anticipation of change makes people in real estate pause and reflect.

Still, there is real estate activity, albeit at a slower pace. Informed buyers are signing contracts. Many participants are optimistic about the new direction promised by the new administration, and in the short term, that may cause a slight bump up in activity. However, the credit crunch continues to overshadow housing markets in the US.

Stabilize credit, then and only then, can the housing improve.

Speaking of wolves at the door…


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