Last week we saw a chorus of “appraisers are killing our deals” stories in some major publications:

  • When Appraisal Hassles Tank a Home Sale [WSJ]
  • When Appraisals Come in Low [NYT]
  • Appraisals Scuttle Home Sales Where Prices Rise Fast[IBD]

I’ve long been a critic of my own industry. Like any industry there are terrific appraisers, average appraisers and form-fillers. Post-Lehman there are a LOT more of the latter.

The scenario that prompted these articles and others like them occurs when a sale is properly vetted in the market place and an appraiser enters the transaction and subsequently appraises the property below the sales price. It supposedly is happening in greater frequency now, hence the rise in complaints.

My focus of criticism has largely been centered on appraisal management companies (AMC), who have tried to convert our industry to a commodity like a flood certification or title search rather than a professional service. AMCs serve as a middleman between the bank and an appraiser and they have thrived as a result of financial reform. Most only require an appraiser to be licensed, agree to work for 50 cents on the dollar and turn work around in one fifth the time required for reasonable due diligence. Appraisal quality of bank appraisals has plummeted in this credit crunch era and as a result has prompted growing outrage from all parties in a transaction.

Of course, the market value of the property may not be worth it. But the real estate industry doesn’t trust the appraiser anymore so we point them finger at them automatically.

Yes, it’s a hassle. So let’s decide what the problem really is and fix it.

A long time appraisal colleague and friend of mine once told me before the housing bubble burst:

“Jonathan, you as the appraiser are the last one to walk into the sales transaction. Everyone involved in the sale is smarter than you. The selling agent (paid a commission), the buyers agent (paid a commission), the buyer (emotionally bias), the seller (emotionally bias), the selling attorney (paid a transaction fee), the buyer’s attorney (paid a transaction fee) and the loan officer or mortgage broker (paid a transaction fee) all know more than you do.”

The appraiser in this post-financial reform world doesn’t have a vested interest in the transaction like they did during the housing boom – some could argue they are too detached. The vested interest I speak of occurred during the bubble when mortgage brokers and most banks generally used appraisers who always “made the number.” Incidentally, many of those types of appraisal firms are out of business now.

Let’s clear something up. The interaction an appraiser has with a lender when appraising below the purchase price now is not that much different than during the boom. When an appraiser kills a sale, the appraiser is generally hit with a laundry list of data to review and comments to respond to questions from the AMC, bank or mortgage broker who use the “guilty until proven innocent” approach even though the bank likely won’t rescind the appraisal. The additional time spent by the appraiser is a significant motivator to push the value higher to avoid the hassle if the appraiser happens to be “morally flexible.”

And by the way, sales price does not equal market value.

The sources for most of these low appraisal stories I began this post with come from biased parties so it makes it clear that low appraisals are the problem. In reality, the low appraisal issue is merely the symptom of a broken mortgage lending process. The problem is real and becomes more apparent when a market changes rapidly as it is now. Decimate the quality of valuation experts and you generate results that are less consistent with actual market conditions and therefore more sales are killed than usual. Amazingly the US mortgage lending infrastructure today does not emphasize “local market knowledge” in the appraisers they hire no matter what corporate line you are being fed. This is even more amazing when you consider that most national lenders have only a handful of appraisal staff and tens of thousands of appraisals ordered ever month.

The cynical side of me thinks that rise in low value complaints reflects an over-heated housing market – that the parties are getting swept up in the froth and the neutral appraiser is the voice of reason. The experienced me realizes that financial reform has brought new appraisers into the profession that have no business being here (and pushed many of the good ones out) and that the rise in the frequency of low appraisals has only seen the light of day because housing markets are currently changing rapidly.

Here’s my problem with the mortgage lending industry today as it relates to appraisers:
• Most of the people running bank mortgage functions are the same as during the bubble, only see appraisal as a cost, not as eyes and ears.
• Banks love the current state of appraisals because the values are biased low (banks are risk averse) and they fully control the appraiser.
• Appraisal Management Companies themselves have no real oversight (some are very good, most are terrible).
• Banks no longer emphasize local market knowledge in their appraisers or they pay lip service to it.
• Short term cost savings trumps emphasis on quality and reliability.

Every now and then (like now) everyone seems surprised and feels hassled when appraisal values don’t match market conditions. However the bank appraisal process has largely morphed into an army of robots on an assembly line – either because we are unaware of the problem until it affects us directly or we just want it that way.

Let’s focus on fixing the mortgage lending process or stop complaining about your appraisal.

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