Reappraising Home Appraisers
After being blamed for helping to inflate home values during the housing boom, the appraisal business is again coming under fire. Squeezed by a drop in fees, some appraisers are compensating by driving long distances to handle more assignments.
Their wanderings are raising questions about whether they know enough about the neighborhoods to accurately assess the value of homes—which has implications for both home buyers and owners.
Bob Blake, a flight-test engineer who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., was shocked when an appraiser who traveled 44 miles from Port St. Lucie, Fla., valued his home at $228,000 in late May. Mr. Blake's mortgage broker, Skip McDonough, protested to the appraisal-management company, Nations Valuation Services Inc., that the appraiser had failed to look at comparable homes. Eventually, Nations sent another appraiser, who valued the home at $295,000. The dispute delayed Mr. Blake's refinancing by more than six weeks.
A spokesman for Nations Valuation declined to discuss the details of the appraisals but said, "We feel we handled it properly."
Appraisals are supposed to shield home buyers from paying too much and lenders from overestimating the value of collateral. If appraisals come in too high, buyers may overpay, making defaults more likely. If they are too low, it becomes hard to sell or refinance homes. Many real-estate agents and builders say that the pendulum has swung too far toward caution, and that lowball appraisals threaten to snuff out any recovery in the housing market.
The pile of appraisals generated by AMC Independent Contractor appraisers accumulating on the floor by my desk proves otherwise. The complaints about non-geographic competent appraisers pouring in to regulatory agencies provides even more evidence that the non-regulated, Big Bank Owned AMCs and Andrew Cuomo are blowing smoke.
The debate over appraisals is inflamed by a natural tension: Real-estate agents and mortgage brokers, who need to complete transactions to collect their fees, are unhappy when an appraiser nixes the sale price. But it also suggests that there may be unintended consequences to an attempt by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to reform the appraisal business.
"Many appraisers are struggling to survive on the fees paid by the AMCs," says Bill Garber, a spokesman for the Appraisal Institute, a trade group based in Chicago. Appraisers are being asked to work faster even as their fees are cut, and that conflicts with the goal of getting reliable appraisals, he says.
Appraisal-management companies deny they are squeezing appraisers too hard. A spokesman for banking giant Wells Fargo & Co., which owns an AMC, says it "has invested substantial time and resources in the quality control of the valuation process to, among other things, ensure that individual appraisers have relevant knowledge of the markets and properties they review." A spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo says the new code is working well and helping protect appraisers from pressure to inflate estimates.
Sometimes appraisers are called on to express opinions on the values of faraway homes without even seeing them. LandSafe, an appraisal unit of Bank of America Corp., in May assigned Jane Price, an appraiser in Dallas, to review another appraiser's estimate of a home in Cathedral City, Calif. Ms. Price didn't visit the neighborhood in question, but her review cited nearby homes she used to determine comparable value.