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[The Hall Monitor] The Eye In The Sky Doesn’t Lie

Todd Huttunen began appraising more than 20 years ago with a few years off in between to pursue a career in cabinet making. He relegated that to hobby status and is currently an appraiser in an assessor’s office. His best friend dubbed him The Hall Monitor because of his rigidity and respect for rules. He offers Soapbox readers tongue-in-groove insight on appraisal issues. This week Todd takes a bird’s eye view which is straighter than the way a crow flies about enhancing reports with photos from sources like Google Earth as an alternative to boilerplate text. …Jonathan Miller


Appraisals that are deliberate attempts to mislead are generally effective not because of the information that is communicated in the report, but because of that which is not. The client may be in another part of the country and have no direct knowledge of the area in which the subject property is located. He is completely dependent on the appraiser in that he only “knows” what the appraiser tells him. An unscrupulous appraiser may state “the subject dwelling is part of an established residential neighborhood”, when in fact the subject is on the outside edge of the established residential neighborhood, just as it transitions to an industrial area. The client may want to know (then again, maybe not) that the subject is across the street from, say, a piggery.

If we are serious in our concern about minimizing the number of misleading, inflated and fraudulent appraisals then we should be taking greater advantage of existing technology, such as Google Earth [1] which has the added benefit of improving the overall quality of appraisals done by reputable appraisers. Let’s face facts here and recognize that even if you don’t consider yourself a “form-filler” (as Jonathan Miller derisively refers to the lowest among us) you’ve got to admit that most of the narrative parts of any appraisal report consist of boilerplate (with only minimal deviation) starting with the Neighborhood description and going right on through to the Reconciliation, and finally – the always scintillating – Certification and Limiting Conditions. Most of the verbiage in a FANNIE MAE appraisal [2], even one which is well written, consists of the same insipid pabulum that few clients read even the first time they see it (and never again thereafter).

On the other hand, everybody likes to look at pictures! All Yankee fans (and a lot of other people) will recognize this one as the House that Ruth Built.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Most appraisals would benefit from fewer (meaningless) words and more (insightful) pictures. By utilizing the “layering” effects available in GIS based systems like Google Earth, the appraiser can replace his generic Neighborhood Description with a uniquely specific, Neighborhood Illustration.

Appraisals should include two aerial photographs of the subject, one from 1,000 and another from say, 10,000 feet – with the subject property displayed at the center. This is easily doable with Google Earth. By looking at these photos it’s very easy to see how the subject conforms, or doesn’t, with properties around it. There’s no better way to examine externalities, changes in land use, density, size of buildings, etc. than by looking down from above. Until recently, you had to be in an airplane on its final approach to see a neighborhood from this perspective. Thanks to Google Earth, the flyover is “virtual” and you are at the controls (I know what you’re thinking. These photos are not in “real” time and therefore not necessarily accurate representations of the landscape. True enough, but unless there’s been a recent tsunami or comparable disaster, they will be plenty accurate enough to do the job for which they are intended.)

The photo addendum should include the roof top view in addition to the usual front and rear of subject, street scene and interior rooms. The same is true for the comparable sales a view from the sky taken from the same “eye level” as is used for the subject.

The list of potential applications for GIS systems like Google Earth to the appraisal profession is nearly endless and if you’re not using it yet, you should be. Best of all, the basic version is free.