The Appraisal and Appraisers


Of all the issues having to do with a mortgage, the appraisal generates more overblown problems than any other part of the process. It's also one of the most critical areas to handle correctly. There are reasons for this: It (along with perhaps the relatively cheap credit report) is the only thing a consumer has to pay for, as in money out of their pocket, before the mortgage is complete. Everything else is (or should be) done "on spec" by the mortgage provider. It is also a weapon used against the consumer by many mortgage providers.

In order to understand appraisals, you need to understand where everybody is coming from. An appraisal is a necessity for lenders. It tells the market valuation of the property in neutral terms. It is one of the essential anti-fraud steps of the process, as well as telling the lender how much the property might sell for in ideal conditions (which a foreclosure most certainly is not). It is the "market" part of the "lower of cost or market" valuation, which is driven into accountants and bankers starting with their first classes on the subject. Think about it. Just because you might be willing to pay $700,000 for the house next door to your parents (or for your parents old house itself) does not mean someone else will if you fail to make the payments. I have encountered at least two instances where a prospective borrower was definitely attempting to defraud a lender - and an appraisal caught it. There have been others where a reasonable person would have been less certain, but some of those instances were likely attempted fraud. Because of these, anytime somebody wants me to press for a drive-by or computer appraisal, a little blip goes off in my little bank of warning signal detectors. The lenders aren't stupid. They know that lesser appraisals are cheaper, and employing the more expensive alternative requiring the consumer to write a check for several hundred dollars is going to cause some people to go elsewhere. It is the judgment of these highly experienced people who have been trusted to loan hundreds of thousands of dollars at a blow that an appraisal costs them less than an increased probability of the things it is designed to prevent. And when a loan officer like me presses them for a lesser appraisal, a little blip goes off on their radar screen, also. I can't read minds, but I've had more success in getting lesser appraisals by keeping my mouth shut and letting the lender decide it's safe enough on their own, then I have by asking for one.

You should not expect a mortgage provider to pay for an appraisal, like many will for a credit report. Unlike a credit report, an appraisal is several hundred dollars, and they don't it get back if the loan doesn't fund. My attitude, born of experience, is "If this customer is not sold enough on the benefits of the loan to front the money for the appraisal when I'm putting in a much larger investment of my time and administrative and support costs, then this isn't a good investment." Other people you may never meet such as the title company, escrow company, underwriters, processors, etcetera are also working in the background - and nobody gets paid if you change your mind, aren't qualified, find a better deal, whatever. If they are hourly or salaried employees that do get paid, somebody else is investing the money to pay them. I may not have a fiduciary responsibility to all of them, but that doesn't mean I don't have any moral responsibility to see that their work is rewarded.

Furthermore, some lenders actually do prohibit brokers from paying the appraiser directly as an anti-fraud measure - and that's one pointless piece of information I can ignore by having the necessary attitude to succeed in business. This does not mean that your mortgage provider isn't doing their best to balance the competing interests - that of an appraiser's right to get paid for what they do, versus a consumer's desire not to pay for something that doesn't help them. And twice in my career I have refunded appraisal fees out of my own pocket to customers who told me the truth as they knew it, but didn't know to tell me something else (both fairly obscure points) that prevented the loan from going through. Because I didn't ask, I felt morally obligated to compensate their loss. (This is not a legal requirement, and is not common - I've asked literally dozens of loan officers from all kinds of loan providers whether they've ever rebated an appraisal fee for any reason when a loan didn't go through. So far, two others have said yes. Most look at me and answer "no" as if I'm some kind of alien from another planet. So go into the appraisal with a clear idea that if the loan fails, you're not getting the money back. Period. That way you may be pleasantly surprised, but you won't be expecting something unrealistic)

You should not expect an appraiser to work for free. It may not be rocket science, but it is an exacting field where in order to become licensed you must spend at least two years of your life as an apprentice, with an income of basically nothing. As a result, there is usually a shortage of appraisers. I'm often amazed that appraisals aren't more expensive. On the other hand, many of them want to get paid for work that sabotages the loan it's supposed to support. There is a Big Thing in appraiser's association circles about how they hate loans with a minimum appraisal required, and explicit minimum appraisals actually are illegal. The appraisers, being normal humans, ideally want to be able to run their appraisal off the easiest comparable property values and let the chips fall where they may. On the other hand, there have been literally dozens of cases in my experience where choosing different but still comparable properties for comparison and doing a little more work netted the value necessary to make the loan work - the appraiser just didn't want to be bothered, something that is against the grain of good business practice - and they are supposedly businesspeople. I have also seen this abused by a broker who wanted to make more on loans - if the appraisal came in for $40,000 more, this broker got a bigger rebate from the bank, and thus, made another $1200 on the loan. Lenders for their part do not want appraisals ordered where the appraisal is going to come in at a certain minimum no matter what the property is worth. But it isn't a sign of good business practice to expect to be paid where your work is going to sabotage a substantial investment that others have already made in a project, as a below value appraisal does. It is naïve to expect that loan provider to continue to supply you with business, when you've just cost their former prospect several hundred dollars and kept that prospect from getting their loan, as a result of which the loan provider's investment is lost, and furthermore you have left the loan provider to face all of the negative ramifications of an unhappy consumer. So some sort of compromise needs to be worked out among the competing interests of a consumer that doesn't want to pay for something he doesn't have to or that does no good, an appraiser that wants to get paid for the work, a lender that wants an honest appraisal, and a loan provider that wants an investment to pay off.

The one that I have found that works best is not a minimum appraisal. Besides being illegal, asking for a minimum appraisal is a violation of my fiduciary duty to the lender. Instead, what I'll do is write something along the lines of "If comparables do not support a value of $X, please re-confirm the order prior to performing the appraisal." It isn't bulletproof, by any means. But it gives everybody the best shot at a fair shake without giving anybody carte blanche, and it prevents the vast majority of the problems. The appraiser does most of his or her work before going out to the house in question, checking sales of comparable properties in the Multiple Listing Service that they subscribe to. If the "comps" don't support $X, and the loan collapses, he's lost some work time. For a businessperson, this should be no big deal, and what they've lost is a small fraction of what other people working on this loan have lost. Furthermore, I'm going to keep sending business to that appraiser. If the comps support $Y, which is less than $X, and I can re-work the loan or find another loan and get the consumer to sign off on it based upon $Y (something that is far easier to do before the consumer gets angry at writing a $400 check and not being able to get the loan on the terms promised), the loan proceeds and the appraiser gets paid, and everybody is happy. If the comps support $X and the appraiser gets paid, everybody is happy - unless the actual appraisal comes in lower, and this does happen where a property is not as well cared for as most, doesn't have standard features, etcetera. There's nothing that can be done. You thought your home was worth $X, and it isn't. End of story. The loan provider took every precaution they legally could. The appraiser took every precaution to protect you that they legally could, and now they're entitled to be paid. It's no fun for anybody - consumer, loan provider, or appraiser. I will put up with this a few times for an appraiser who makes a habit of calling me when the comps are low. I'll keep sending them business. Chances are it's not their fault. On the other hand, every so often I'll get a call from some appraiser who gave me three "hop, pop and drops" (as in "hop on over, pop the consumer for the bill, and drop a uselessly low appraisal on them") in quick succession, and wonders why his phone isn't ringing. And of course, the various appraisers organizations are trying to pass legislation or regulations that basically give them the right to come back with any old appraisal they want to, and make it even more difficult to ask them to perform in accordance with good business practice.

An appraisal is not what your house will sell for. There are any number of subjective factors an appraiser cannot take into consideration, or cannot account for fully. The types of things they look at are objective. Size of the lot. Square feet of the house. Number of bedrooms. Number of bathrooms, and so on. These have all got measurable, objective answers. Cleanliness of rooms and condition of paint are hard to measure objectively. Nonetheless, potential buyers take them into consideration to a much greater degree than an appraiser.

One fact you should know about the appraisal: They're good for a maximum of three to six months, measured from the date of the appraisal to the date the loan funds, which is likely to be thirty days or more after you apply. Usually three months is the limit if no loan was actually funded based upon that appraisal. If it's older than the lender's underwriting guidelines allow, every lender in the known universe is going to require a new one, unless your loan is one of the fortunate few that doesn't require an appraisal.

The most important fact every homeowner or homebuyer needs to know about an appraisal: The entity that orders the appraisal, controls the appraisal. If you pay for it, you're entitled to a copy. That doesn't mean you're going to be able to take it to another loan provider and use it. The appraiser will require both a release from the previous loan provider (who after all, is responsible for giving them business), and a retype fee of about $100, possibly more. Whether the loan provider will release it is problematical. They are not required to. Some won't, no matter how good the reason. Some want to be paid, first. Even the most liberal and ethical aren't going to release it if you've simply found a better deal. Remember, they've invested some serious resources in making this loan happen based upon your representation that you wanted it.

In another essay, I advise you to apply for a back up loan every time you buy a property or intend to refinance. Now I'm going to tell you the second smartest thing that you can do: Make certain you're the one who orders the appraisal and owns it. Now some loan providers use only their own "in house" appraisers and require the appraisal to be paid for up front, when you fill out the loan application. They do this to make certain they keep control of the appraisal, so no other loan provider can use it, obliging you to pay a second appraisal fee if you want to go somewhere else. Unless you can get them to agree in writing to release the appraisal (they won't), this is a giant red flag not to do business with that provider. The appraiser should be someone you have the option of choosing, and should be paid at point of service when the appraiser comes out to the home. (Don't choose an appraiser who's a family member, however. Lenders frown on this. Expect some pointed questions or having to get another appraisal if your name and the appraisers names are similar.)

Even other loan providers will try to slip in and assume ownership of an appraisal. If you want to control the appraisal, you must order it direct from the appraiser yourself, and if your loan provider provided the recommendation, the appraiser still might consider themselves bound if they get a significant amount of business there. On the other hand, as I also state in another essay, time is always a critical factor in every loan. The appraisal holds the whole process up if it's not done promptly, and a reasonable appraiser is going to put his priorities on getting the appraisals done from the people he gets business from on a consistent basis. So if you're going to order it yourself, order it immediately, or even on your own before you start the loan process if you know the parameters. This is difficult in the case of purchases, but very possible in the case of refinances. On the other hand, purchases are less time critical. Warning!: There are different kinds of appraisals, and different qualification levels of appraisers. There isn't space here to cover them all. If you order the wrong kind of appraisal or order it from the wrong kind of appraiser, it's useless. Just because 90% plus of all appraisals are the same kind from the same grade of appraiser or better doesn't mean yours is one of them. The best way to handle this situation is to give the loan provider no more than two business days to give you the parameters for the appraisal, and be preparing the ground ahead of time by telephoning appraisers. Somebody that will charge $450 and do it within two days is almost certainly a better value than someone who will charge $350 and take two weeks. Immediately upon receipt of parameters from your loan provider, order your appraisal. That exact second. Don't even put the phone down. As I said, time is critical. Some loan providers will not allow you to do this, insisting upon being the one to order the appraisal. This is a red flag. You probably want to take your business elsewhere. Handling the appraisal correctly is not trivial for a consumer, who after all is not usually a real estate professional, but if you handle it correctly, you put yourself in a position of much greater leverage.

Caveat Emptor


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on May 28, 2007 10:00 AM.

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