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Tom Kelly: Appraisals lag in a hot housing market

Tom Kelly, columnist

Residential inventories might be on the rise in some neighborhoods but you would never know it by the number of offers on some well presented listings.

Regardless of what ultimate price the market will bear, appraisals tend to lag behind the market because they are a reflection of where the market has been, according to one reason mentioned a recent National Association of Realtors study on complaints from members about low appraisals. In some cases, however, all offers on a home for sale have come in higher than the appraised value, confounding agents and lenders.

Many appraisers and housing analysts believe problems arise from two areas—the definition of “market value” and out-of-area appraisers sent to evaluate properties outside of their areas of expertise.

Richard Hagar, a nationally recognized authority on real estate appraisals, said there is a difference between appraisers “market value” and the “market value” recognized by buyers and sellers.

“By law, appraisers must follow a federal definition of market value for lending appraisals,” Hagar said. “However, agents, buyers and sellers have a different opinion and that is what creates major conflicts. By design, the federal definition of market value is more conservative—the most probable price. While for agents, buyers and sellers it remains the highest likely price.”

Hagar’s point appears well taken. Jonathan Miller, another appraiser and national expert, said appraisers are facing an increasing number of accusations from buyers and brokers that valuations are coming in too low and under the agreed upon sales price in housing markets where prices have jumped rapidly in recent months.

Some neighborhoods have seen prices rise 25 percent in the past year. The appraisals, however, haven’t caught up to reflect the rise in prices, real estate salespersons contend. And, all expect highest likely price not highest probable price.

Miller says that most property valuations are valid, but a big contributor to the problem is due to markets that are moving too quickly and “inconsistently.” The markets that are seeing particularly scarce inventories and bidding wars may see valuations that can change “within a couple of weeks,” Miller said.

A low appraisal can prompt buyers to try to renegotiate a lower sales price or force a buyer who is trying to get financing to find a way to come up with more money in order to proceed with the sale.

Bank failures and fraud led to a move away from the “highest supportable” value. In 1989, that term was replaced with “most probable.” According to Hagar, this adjustment was forced on appraisers so that when values were skyrocketing upward, appraisals would likely come in under the top-end sales price.

While borrowers and real estate agents have the right to question an appraiser before allowing the appraiser access to the property, few borrowers elect to do so.

“The goal of the conversation should not be to influence the appraiser,” Hagar said, “but rather to ask the appraiser questions about their area knowledge and experience as a method of screening for competency. In our experience, appraisers traveling 150 miles from their office is an indicator that the appraiser is likely not geographically competent.”

From the homeowner’s perspective, the appraiser should be viewed as an extension of the lender. For many years, lenders had approved lists of competent, third-party providers who would provide the proper service for the amount charged. Some lenders truly cared about the reputations of third-party providers they choose to include under their umbrella. According to Hagar, that no longer is case because lenders are deluged by volume and have hired appraisal management companies (AMCs) to manage the load.

“From our point of view, the largest banks don’t appear to be hiring the best and brightest appraisers, they appear to be hiring based on fast and cheap,” Hagar said. The cheapest appraisers often do not have adequate knowledge or experience and, as a result, produce poor quality appraisals that harm everyone. They spend 15 minutes walking around before disappearing and their reports often kill the deal.”

If you are preparing to purchase or refinance a home, take the time to ask the appraiser a few questions about his or her background before they visit the property. Ask if they have appraised your type of property recently in your neighborhood. Inquire if the appraiser is a member of the multiple listing association and if the person has access to MLS property data. If you don’t like the answers given, contact your loan representative about hiring a different appraiser.

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