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Guest blogger: Then don't call it an appraisal

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The trillions in adverse financial exposure and lost economic opportunity were supposed to teach us, especially those of us connected with the banking system, something about risk. But a look at the latest trend in home appraisal practices shows that although the relationship between mortgage lenders and appraisers may look different on the surface, its nature remains troubled. 

As a rule, appraisers are generally ignored until we make a mistake.  We’re the back-of-the-house worker bees. During the housing boom (actually a credit boom with a housing boom as a symptom), an appraisal was relegated to a commodity status like a flood certification.  Without much political clout or public awareness, we weren’t used to being in the spotlight. We’re finding it not at all flattering.

Mortgage brokers’ business swelled during the boom years and many participated in compromising as much as two thirds of the residential mortgage lending business at peak - they only got paid if they could close the deal.  That took an appraisal.  Guess what type of appraiser was hired en masse?  The ones who provided the “right” value.

How did things work in the banking industry?  During the boom, in-house appraisal review departments were closed in most US Banks because they were “cost” centers.  Mergers and consolidation caused lenders to lose local relationships with appraisers.

After the September financial system tipping point, it seemed like we appraisers might get an opportunity to redeem ourselves.  After all, we were part of the problem along with regulators, investment banks, commercial banks, ratings agencies, real estate brokers, mortgage brokers, mortgage bankers and consumers. One big happy party.

Regulators have set out new guidelines on appraisals for lenders.  The Home Valuation Code of Conduct, pronounced “Havoc” is an agreement between New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Fannie Mae that was intended to change everything.

Comp Checks, inquiries in which an appraiser was often asked to assure a floor value for a property without actually performing an appraisal, are over.  Mortgage brokers can’t order appraisals anymore – otherwise the bank can’t sell the paper to Fannie Mae.

But not much else has changed. Lenders now call appraisal management companies who pay the appraiser half their wage (fees for AMCs are lower than appraisal fees paid 20 years ago) and require 24 – 48 hour turn times without exception.

The National Association of Realtors wants appraisers to use “good” comps and ignore foreclosure activity because we are “killing the recovery.”

Many of the ethical “appraisers” have been forced to seek new types of work or switch careers, as they have been replaced by an army of “form-fillers.”

After all of the financial system turmoil, not much has changed in the mortgage process as it relates to appraisers.  A conversation with a loan consultant we had last week perhaps best exemplifies how detached from reality many in the lending community really are. 

One of my staff appraisers recapped to me a direct conversation with a loan consultant at a large national bank. The consultant had contacted the appraiser to complain about the appraised value not being high enough on several occasions, even bringing the borrower in without advanced notice to the appraiser on one of the calls. This is a frequent conversation and it’s getting old.

When trying to get an understanding of the collateral, does the banking industry want to know what the value is from a neutral source or not?  If not, don’t call it an appraisal because it's not.

Jonathan Miller is a real estate appraisal consultant in New York. He is the co-founder of the residential appraiser Miller Samuel, and a managing principal of the commercial appraiser Miller Cicero.

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Comments (1)
Jonathan's blog, with a few exceptions that date it, could have been written at any time during the past sixty years.
Banking is and, as far as I know always has been, about making money, period. It serves an important function in that it makes money available and moves it from supply to demand, but I've never heard any part of it, other than us appraisers, that is supposed to enhance the public trust.
If we are to make the changes we think are needed we need enforcement authority.
Posted by Edd Gillespie | Saturday, August 07 2010 at 10:22AM ET
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