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Real estate chaos hits appraisal industry
How much is your
house worth in this turbulent market? That's the
question on the minds of many Bay Area homeowners,
but it's become increasingly tough to answer, even
for the pros.
Instability in the region's housing market is making
it difficult to determine values, according to
mortgage brokers and real estate appraisers. "It's
miserable," said Karen Mann, who runs a small East
Bay appraisal firm called Mann & Associates. "I've
been in the business 28 years, and this is the worst
downturn I've seen."
While Mann's Discovery Bay office is in one of the
hardest-hit parts of the Bay Area, appraisers in San
Francisco and other places where the market has
fared better echoed many of her concerns. "They are
shooting down the value of appraisals like I've
never seen before," said Rick Gordillo, whose
practice specializes in residential real estate.
"It's almost as if they don't want the business.
They are turning away loans even when the values are
Even seemingly low appraisals are being questioned
by lenders, who have been burned by the mortgage
crisis and are now scrutinizing loan applications
with much more care, said Ed Craine, vice president
of the California Association of Mortgage Brokers.
During the housing boom in the first half of the
decade, lenders typically evaluated appraisals
submitted as part of a loan application by running
their own comparisons from their desks. Now, banks
are much more likely to send appraisers out into the
field to drive by a property and the nearby homes
listed as comparables to help establish a home's
value. "You can have what I call a very realistic or
conservative appraisal done by an independent fee
appraiser and that will go to a lender's
underwriter, and the lender can come back saying we
don't think that value is accurate," said Craine,
who is also president of the San Francisco mortgage
brokerage Smith-Craine Finance. "It used to only
happen once in a blue moon. Now it's happening maybe
1 in every 10 times."
Finding the right price is crucial, not just for
getting a sale closed, but also because it plays a
huge role in attracting buyers.
The down market has meant that more real estate
agents are seeking an appraisal early in the sales
process, asking for help determining the price
before they put the home up for sale, Mann said.
"I'm seeing an increase of about 20 percent in
Realtor activity," she said. "In a market like this,
you have to be as exact with the listing price as
possible. If you over-list, you run the risk of
staying on the market too long and becoming stale."
The art of appraising a home is about
number-crunching - putting together a series of
comparable recent real estate transactions to help
determine the value of a property. The declining
market makes it particularly important to use
current sales numbers rather than relying on
information that is 3 to 6 months old, which in a
more stable market is considered a perfectly
acceptable comparison, experts said.
"It's most important to deal with the most recent
sales," said Aldo Congi, a vice president at McGuire
Real Estate in San Francisco. The tougher guidelines
and declining home prices throughout most of the Bay
Area mean that what goes into an appraisal - both
those required by lenders for home purchases and
those done for homeowners who are refinancing their
loans - has changed.
The Appraisal Institute, a trade group with 32,000
members, has even begun offering a series of daylong
seminars in cities across the country to retrain its
members. The lectures are designed to help the
group's appraisers adapt to the current market and
learn how to better evaluate data.
The seminars began last spring, and enrollment has
exceeded the Appraisal Institute's expectations,
said spokesman Aaron Hultgren. The declining sales
volume that comes with a down market is one factor
that has made it especially difficult to come up
with accurate values, appraisers said.
The number of homes sold in the Bay Area's nine
counties fell almost 10 percent in June, the most
recent month for which data are available, according
to DataQuick Information Systems. That decline put
June sales volume at its lowest level since 1993.
In San Francisco, neighborhoods are small, which
compresses the number of comparable homes, making
appraisals particularly complicated. "Any time you
have a reduction in volume, especially because that
is when the underwriting criteria of lenders tends
to become more stringent, it's difficult," said
Charles Warren, who runs a San Francisco appraisal
business called Warren and Warren. "Lenders want to
see comparables from the last 30 days, and all of a
sudden you are left without any valid data. That
exacerbates the problem."
For cities in eastern Contra Costa County, where
foreclosure levels are among the region's highest,
it is even worse, said Mann, the Discovery Bay
"Foreclosures and short sales don't really conform
to the definition of market value because they are
done under duress," Mann said. "At the same time,
you have people who are selling homes who just want
to move and are not in distress." That creates two
price levels within one neighborhood, she said.
"The challenge for us is to determine what's normal
for the neighborhood. We have to be very careful and
be sure that we're reading the market correctly and
don't over- or undervalue the property we are
During a down market, sellers - both home builders
and individuals who are selling their houses - also
are more likely to throw in extras that skew the
value of a home.
For appraisers, that means spending a lot more time
working the phones calling real estate agents,
developers and others involved in each transaction
to make sure they understand exactly why a home that
is being used as a comparable sold for the price it
"You need to be able to back out a seller's
concessions and to make adjustments to the sale
price to get what the true sale price is for the
real estate only," said Leslie Sellers, vice
president of the Appraisal Institute. "If there is
creative financing - if the seller helps with the
loan and the buyer gets to live in the house for 12
months interest-free, for example - you need to make
adjustments to get what we'd consider the
The extra calls and the extra work to sort out home
values mean that instead of being able to complete
two appraisal reports a day, she is able to do only
one, Mann said. At the same time, the slowdown in
the market has meant cutting her staff from 17
people to four.
Independent appraisers like Mann typically charge
between $350 and $500 for their reports, and these
days, sellers are reluctant to pay that.
Still, appraisers and mortgage brokers said, there
are some things buyers and sellers can do to make
the appraisal process less painful.
Buyers should be sure to protect themselves by
keeping their financing contingencies in place until
the lender has signed off on the appraisal, said
Craine, the mortgage broker.
Sellers need to work with their agents to determine
whether they'll stick with the buyer and try to make
the deal work should a lender reduce the home's
Like many other parts of the housing market, what's
happening with appraisals is directly tied to the
turmoil in the mortgage industry, experts said.
"What we've seen with the return to proper
underwriting guidelines is that lenders are looking
much more closely at appraisals," said McGuire's
"Appraisals are extremely important," he said. "It's
not that that wasn't true in the past, but we tended
to minimize that during the real estate bubble.
We're getting back to it now."
What you should know
-- Use a local appraiser. Determining the value of a
home in the Bay Area is very different from
appraising a home in other parts of the state and
-- Check to see whether your appraiser is a member
of the Appraisal Institute or the American Society
of Appraisers, the two biggest trade groups. These
appraisers have completed more coursework than those
who are just licensed by the state.
-- Ask your real estate agent to see a copy of your
appraisal report and make sure you understand it.
-- Buyers should make sure to leave their financing
contingencies in place until the lender has signed
off on the appraisal. The down market means that
lenders are reducing appraisal values more often.
-- Sellers might want to consider getting a
professional appraisal before putting a home on the
Wealthy foreigners attracted back to luxury New
York properties by recovering U.S. dollar
Published: Thursday, April 01, 2010
Signs are that some overseas
buyers are drifting back into the luxury New York
real estate market, betting its 15% to 30% decline
in prices may be about to turn.
The U.S. dollar's recent rally is encouraging them
to jump in before it rallies further and drives up
prices, insiders say. "The foreigners that are
coming to buy now, they're wealthy, they have all
cash, they're people who have weathered the
financial storm," says a broker at Brown Harris
Bid on the City, an online real estate auctioneer
specializing in Manhattan property, estimated a
third of the people enrolled at a recent auction
were from overseas.
Brokerage StreetEasy says foreign traffic on its
website has more than doubled from a year ago, with
hits from Asia leading the way.
On the other hand, an appraiser at Prudential
Douglas Elliman believes the market still has 10% to
15% to fall over the next few years.
Constructing Expert Knowledge in the Appraisal
professional opinions of real estate appraisers are
required to underwrite mortgages, assess taxes, and
maintain liquidity in property markets. The
profession acts as gatekeepers to value, and since
the 1930s has sought to establish its appraisal
methodologies as stable and legitimate. This has
been no small feat as the radical heterogeneity of
the buildings and places confounds attempts to
standardize the derivation of property values.
The law has mediated numerous challenges to the
industry’s claims of expert knowledge. The
best-known has been accusations of institutionalized
racial bias, which is not surprising given that
until 1977, the industry relied on racial rankings
developed by University of Chicago economist, Homer
Hoyt. The Justice Department had to sue appraisers
and lenders to discontinue this practice. Less
obvious challenges include attempts by professional
lacking specialized credentials, notably real estate
brokers, to engage in similar practices. More
stringent professional codes and education standards
have been devised to protect the industry’s claims
to specialization and expertise.
This paper examines the historical role of the law
in establishing and challenging appraiser’s claims
to expert knowledge. Courts judge the admissibility
of expert scientific, technical or specialized
evidence according to standards set by precedent.
While the possession of specialized technical
knowledge may be considered a lower threshold to
traverse than that for scientific knowledge, the
nature of such knowledge in nonetheless contested as
judges take on the odious task of trying to separate
fact from value. In the process, the
inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and ambiguities
embedded in the established appraisal methodologies
are exposed and the very notion of value challenged.
All Academic Inc.
Regulations affecting appraisers largely useless
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - As
soaring home prices set the stage for America's
great housing meltdown, a critical step in making
sure those home sales were a fair deal — the real
estate appraisal — was undermined from within.
After the nation's last major banking disaster,
Congress set up a system to catch rogue appraisers.
Their game: inflating the value of homes at the
direction of equally unscrupulous real estate agents
and mortgage brokers, whose commissions are
determined by the size of the deals.
But a six-month Associated Press investigation found
that the system is crippled by both the bumbling of
its policemen and their inability to effectively
punish those caught committing fraud.
And despite ample evidence appraisers are pressured
into inflating home values — sometimes to prices in
support of loans that are more than buyers can
afford — the federal regulators charged with
protecting consumers have thus far made a conscious
choice not to act.
"The system is completely broken," Marc Weinberg,
the former acting director at the federal agency
charged with monitoring the appraisal industry, told
the AP before he retired earlier this year. "It's
amazing that the system ever worked at all."
The AP conducted dozens of interviews and reviewed
thousands of state and federal documents, and found:
Since 2005, at the height of the housing boom, more
than two dozen states and U.S. territories have
violated federal rules by failing to investigate and
resolve complaints about appraisers within a year.
Some complaints sat uninvestigated for as long as
four years. As a result, hundreds of appraisers
accused of wrongdoing remained in business.
The only tool federal regulators have to force
states into compliance is so draconian — it would
effectively halt all mortgage lending in a state —
that it has never been used.
Both state appraisal boards and the federal agency
tasked with their oversight are chronically
understaffed, many with only one full-time
investigator to handle the hundreds of complaints
that arrive each year. Some don't even have an
"The appraisal reforms of the late 1980s were good
reforms," said Susan Wachter, a real estate
professor at the University of Pennsylvania's
Wharton School of Business. "But they were not
sufficient to prevent what we have seen ... because
regulation without teeth is not regulation."
To be sure, there are many causes of the housing
crisis — lenders who allowed people with spotty
credit to buy homes with little or no money down,
mortgage brokers who focused on selling loans
without regard to the borrowers' ability to repay
and investment bankers who bought and sold risky
mortgage-backed securities. A few of the worst
offenders — appraisers included — have been put
But experts and industry insiders, including
appraisers who feel betrayed by colleagues who don't
follow the rules, believe the failure to effectively
monitor the real estate appraisal industry
contributed to housing's collapse.
This is the way the system is supposed to work:
Typically, an appraiser receives an order from a
real estate agent, lender or mortgage broker to
inspect a property. Based on a physical inspection
of the home and comparable sales in the area, they
develop an estimated value for the property. That
figure is used by banks to set the home's value as
collateral for the mortgage loan.
Appraisers are supposed to come up with a value free
of any outside pressure. But more than three dozen
appraisers nationwide interviewed by the AP said
they often felt pushed by a real estate agent or
mortgage broker to fraudulently inflate a property's
value. They supplied the AP with documents from
lenders asking them to "hit a number."
Documents obtained by the AP also show that hundreds
of appraisers complained to federal and state
agencies about such fraudulent inflation of property
The appraisal system has broken down before. In
1989, Congress concluded that "faulty and fraudulent
appraisals were an important contributor to the
losses that the federal government suffered during
the saving and loan crisis." And it passed the
Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and
Under the law's reforms, a private group known as
the Appraisal Foundation wrote the rules governing
appraisers. The law also recommended that states
begin licensing appraisers and disciplining those
who break the rules.
A federal agency called the Appraisal Subcommittee,
an independent federal agency that answers to
Congress, would conduct field reviews and audits,
and maintain a national registry of appraisers —
including dossiers on those who break the rules.
But problems plagued the system from the start. It
took years for some states to set up the independent
review boards to supervise appraisers or hire
personnel to investigate complaints. Even today,
eight states still do not require appraisers to
obtain a license or certification.
"We got to this point by a lack of enforcement. ...
The public has the right to expect the appraisal
boards are taking care of that problem," said Bob
Ipock, an appraiser from Gastonia, N.C., who is a
critic of the current system. "And they are not.
They're looking the other way."
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