Why Low-Quality Appraisals Are Sinking Real Estate Deals

Article excerpt

Editor's note: This is the second column in a series exploring a rise in mortgage denials. The series appears in HomesSaturday.

The first article of this series described an epidemic of late-stage mortgage loan rejections. These rejections are very costly to potential homebuyers because they occur after the payment of an appraisal fee, and in some cases after payment of a nonrefundable fee to the lender.

A major factor underlying the increase in late-stage rejections is a decline in the quality of appraisals, which is the subject of this article.

Why appraisal quality has declined

Part of the decline in appraisal quality has been the result of market factors beyond anyone's control.

Home-price weakness: During the go-go years before 2007, home prices generally increased. Both appraisers and underwriters implicitly assumed price increases would continue, which imparted an upward bias to appraisals.

The price declines following the financial crisis have flipped attitudes in the opposite direction. Underwriters want some built-in protection against additional price declines, and appraisers tend to err on the downside.

Fewer reliable "comps:"A major factor underlying the decline in appraisal quality has been the reduced number of reliable prices for appraisers to consult. Appraisals are largely based on "comps," or recent sale prices of comparable houses in the same market area. As recent sales and comps become scarcer, appraisers are forced to search for comps at further distances from the subject property, which means the comps have less relevance. Fewer comps and less relevant comps results in lower-quality appraisals.

In addition, an abnormally large proportion of transactions today consist of foreclosure sales and short sales, often to investors. The prices of these deals are often below true value because of pressures to sell fast. Including such transactions in comps adds to the downward bias in appraisals, contributing to the overall price weakness.

The Home Valuation Code of Conduct (HVCC): The upward bias in appraisals during the go-go years before the crisis led regulators to issue HVCC. The goal was to insulate the appraisal process from influence by any of the parties with an interest in the outcome -- especially lenders. Under HVCC, lenders must obtain appraisals in some manner that prevents them from exercising any influence on the outcome.

The great majority of lenders comply with HVCC by ordering appraisals through appraisal management companies (AMCs), which intermediate between the lender and the appraiser. The AMC selects and pays the appraiser, and passes the appraisal to the lender, who has no direct contact with the appraiser. …