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The Apple Peeled – Ask the Experts: Market Dynamics with Jonathan Miller

Over the years, I have bantered with the Espinal Adler Team (Marie Espinal and Jeff Adler) at Douglas Elliman Real Estate about the market which has been invaluable for on the ground intel. And we’ve become friends. When Jeff and Marie asked me to be formally interviewed for their blog “The Apple Peeled [1]” I was happy to do so, especially because I could veer off the road into issues about the current mortgage and appraisal process. This “The Apple Peeled” blog post: Ask the Experts: Market Dynamics with Jonathan Miller [1] was distilled from the 90-minute conversation (I could have gone on for 5 hours) I had with their team.

I hope you find that this apple was fully peeled:


Jonathan Miller’s Market Outlook

The number of units sold in Manhattan in 2018 was down by more than 14 percent compared to the previous year. The brokerage industry tends to be very linear in its perception of the market, so many believe when the market is rising, it will rise forever. And, in-turn, when the market falls, it will fall forever. That approach can lead to overreaction.

The 10-year Challenge (2009 vs. 2019)

Some analysts are even comparing the current cycle to the last downturn and the housing bubble in 2009, but Miller outlined quite a few differences between then and now.

In 2009, the average discount from listing was 10.2%. In 2018 the discount was 5.2%. In ’09, Miller said sellers were anchored to the “pre-Lehman, pre-financial crisis asking prices” and had to travel farther on price to meet a buyer. (Miller measures listing discount by the percent difference between the contract price and the price that the property was listed for sale at the time of contract – not when it was first listed). The most recent asking price is “really the moment the property entered the market,” he said.

Miller said there are more buyers today compared to 2009, but those buyers are “very jaded about what value is.” Meanwhile, sellers are anchored to another market completely, he said.

The change in tax laws in 2018 and a several-month stretch that saw mortgage rates rise before recently dropping close to previous levels had both buyers and sellers re-calibrating what value is. That process can take time.

“If a seller overprices a listing, it takes them up to 2 years to de-anchor from what their price was without thinking that they left money on the table,” Miller said. “The disconnect between buyers and sellers is measured by lower sales volume.”

Starter Segment vs. High-End Luxury

For the last two years, Miller has said that the NYC market is softer at the top and tighter as you move lower in price.

Overall inventory is up by about 17%, with a significant amount of supply coming from the studio and 1-bedroom market. Studio inventory is up 21% percent.

“The pace of the starter market is still the fastest of all segments,” Miller said. “It’s just not as detached as it was because now you have more supply.”

Interest Rates and Their Impact

Typically, rates rise when the economy is strong. The low rates we’re seeing today understate the strength of the current economy, according to Miller. “That’s the disconnect.” In the long run, interest rates do not impact price trends. Mortgage rates have trended lower for three decades, Miller said, but housing prices have fluctuated up and down during that same lengthy stretch.

Mortgage rates weren’t wildly different in ’09 compared to today. In a recent report, Miller stated that an adjustable rate mortgage rate averaged 4.38% in 2009 and was at 3.98% using the same metrics in 2018.

Miller said that real estate investors should stop trying to perfectly time the market (both with rate and supply vs. demand). Perfect timing is a concept that was born out of the housing bubble, he said, when investors viewed housing as a highly liquid stock, instead of in its proper context. “(Real estate) is more of a long-term asset.”

In-Depth Look at the State of Appraisals

“There was nothing learned from the bad behavior of a decade ago,” Miller said, reminding himself of a Mark Twain quote. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes,” Jonathan Miller recited. Miller, President and CEO of real estate appraisal and consulting firm Miller Samuel Inc., said federal regulators are acting irresponsibly in their effort to reduce and perhaps even eliminate the need for an appraisal as part of an overall effort to erase “friction points” that slow-down the mortgage application process.

Miller said the regulators were more concerned with collecting fees than they were with protecting the American consumer. He likened the subtle de-regulation to the housing bubble of a decade ago, pointing out that regulators were getting paid by the failing investment banks they were rating back then. Now, he said, regulators and both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are getting paid whenever loan volume passes through those agencies. (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are Government sponsored enterprises that purchase mortgages from banks and mortgage companies in an effort to create liquidity so that lenders have the capacity to lend to more homebuyers).

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), The Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve System, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) proposed a rule to amend the agencies regulations requiring appraisals for certain real estate related transactions. The proposed rule would increase the threshold level at, or below which appraisals would not be required for residential real estate-related transactions from $250,000 to $400,000.

In response to our request for comment, spokespeople for the FDIC, the OCC, and The Federal Reserve said they do not comment on proposed rules during the rulemaking process.

Mortgage volume has trended lower despite rates falling steadily since the housing bubble, because lenders don’t want to take on risk, Miller said. “They’re in the fetal position. Banks are afraid of their own shadow.”

The tremendous amount of regulation implemented since Dodd Frank has led to mortgage lenders filling Fannie and Freddie’s portfolios with low-risk “pristine” mortgage bundles. But with rates so low, margins are so compressed, regulators need to stimulate volume to make money, according to Miller. “I think (Fannie and Freddie) are emboldened to take more risk.”

The push for fewer mandatory appraisals isn’t the only thing that has hurt the appraisal industry since the Dodd Frank Act was passed in 2010. The evolution of the mortgage industry’s use of the Appraisal Management Company (AMC) has led to a collapse in quality of appraisals ordered by banks, Miller said. He described the AMC as an institutional middle man that takes more than 50 cents on the dollar away from the professional appraisers who do the actual work.

“It’s like a Hollywood actor paying their agent 60% instead of 10%,” Miller said. “The mortgage industry is trying to widgetize the appraiser.”

The AMC is supposed to act as a communication barrier between the appraiser and the loan officer or mortgage broker, to thwart undue pressure to bring appraised values in at specific numbers. But according to Miller, the AMCs are under the same types of pressure that an individual appraiser might face. Some AMCs receive hundreds of thousands of dollars every month by way of appraisal orders placed by big banks. At least at the sales level, the banks apply pressure to the AMC to not “kill deals,” said Miller, who has testified in several class action lawsuits against AMCs.

In many instances, Miller and his firm were hired to do sample reviews of appraisals that came through AMCs. Often, the AMC would utilize appraisers in the market that would always “hit the number,” Miller said. A lot of those appraisers were ignoring valid comps, sometimes from directly across the street that were virtually the same as the subject property. “The AMC encouraged it because they were getting the work,” he said.

Appraisers are pushing back and there are already signs that AMCs were beginning to crumble, Miller said. Quality appraisers are turning away bank work when they know the order is coming in through an AMC because they’re not happy working for less than they deserve and because they’ve been reduced to “form-fillers,” Miller said.


The Apple Peeled Blog [1], February 12, 2019

Espinal Adler Team [2] at Douglas Elliman Real Estate [3]