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 |

39suit

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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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[Choking] No Questions Allowed, Ramming 700 Billion Answers Down Our Throats

September 23, 2008 | 12:51 am | nytlogo | Milestones |

I don’t know if have much fight left in me. I am now reading the novel Choke (same author as Fight Club, an all-time favorite), the transition to this book seems appropriate at the moment.

We are spinning around in circles wolfing down the information we are fed and I think we are slowly, painfully moving in a more productive direction. But it is going to cost us dearly, talk a while and we don’t really understand how to fix it or prevent it from happening again.

It’s not enough for Wall Street to be reinvented. Of the 5 big investment banks, Bear and Lehman are now gone, Merrill was bought by BofA and Morgan and Goldman decided it was better to be a commercial bank.

Still no answers yet.

And old habits die hard – commercial banks don’t want assets valued at market value just yet because it might hurt their books before the bailout.

The SEC has been MIA and Paulson and Bernanke are moving in on their turf.

Members of the economic far left and far right don’t like the $700B bailout without answers either:

From the left

“This administration is asking for a $700 billion blank check to be put in the hands of Henry Paulson, a guy who totally missed this, and has been wrong about almost everything,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “It’s almost amazing they can do this with a straight face. There is clearly skepticism and anger at the idea that we’d give this money to these guys, no questions asked.”

From the right

“This is scare tactics to try to do something that’s in the private but not the public interest,” said Allan Meltzer, a former economic adviser to President Reagan, and an expert on monetary policy at the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business. “It’s terrible.”

Perhaps, the dialog for a solution can finally begin. The Brookings Institute released a brief: A Brief Guide To Fixing Finance

It’s all pretty basic but lays it out cleanly.

  • Policy makers need to set priorities – the problem is too vast to fix at once.
  • Know What Went Wrong Before Beginning to Fix Anything
  • Act In Our Own Interest, While Consulting with Other Countries
  • Principles To Guide More Permanent Reforms

They recommend these reforms should be:

  • First, financial instruments and institutions should be more transparent.
  • Second, financial institutions should be less leveraged and more liquid.
  • Third, financial institutions should be supervised more effectively, with greater regard for systemic risks.

Is gagging better than choking?


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