Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Appraisals

by Calculated Risk on 6/24/2009 04:12:00 PM

Much is being written about the complaints of the NAR (Realtors) and the NAHB (Builders) concerning the Home Valuation Code of Conduct. And the response from the Appraisal Institute.

From Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist:

"[T]he increase in sales is less than expected because poor appraisals are stalling transactions. Pending home sales indicated much stronger activity, but some contracts are falling through from faulty valuations that keep buyers from getting a loan.”
emphasis added
From Joe Robson, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB):
“In the midst of the prime home buying season, builders report that a number of factors are limiting new-home sales. These include consumer concerns about job security, potential buyers’ inability to sell their existing homes, and problems with appraisals coming in too low. The latter issue is directly related to the use of distressed properties (foreclosures and short sales) as comps, which disproportionately impacts assessed values of nearby homes.”
This change started when NY Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo sued First American for conspiring with WaMu to inflate real estate appraisals back in November 2007.
“The independence of the appraiser is essential to maintaining the integrity of the mortgage industry. First American and eAppraiseIT violated that independence when Washington Mutual strong-armed them into a system designed to rip off homeowners and investors alike,” said Attorney General Cuomo. “The blatant actions of First American and eAppraiseIT have contributed to the growing foreclosure crisis and turmoil in the housing market. By allowing Washington Mutual to hand-pick appraisers who inflated values, First American helped set the current mortgage crisis in motion.”
The email evidence was pretty damning. And the HVCC was part of the settlement.

This has been coming for some time, and should be no surprise.

For a good background on the appraisal process, see Tanta's What's Wrong With Approved Appraiser Lists. Tanta was writing about approved appraiser lists, but her posts explains the appraisal problem. Here is an excerpt:
[W]hat WaMu is alleged to have done is itself the kind of conduct that is an automatic “red flag” for anyone who knows anything about how the appraisal management business works. Since most of you are fortunate enough to be entirely innocent of that, I thought I’d go through some issues here.

First off, I’m talking about how the business works, not about how the principles of appraiser independence are derived by the Appraisal Foundation or why they matter so much. I’m taking as a given that we accept the axiom that when an appraiser’s compensation is based on his or her willingness to come up with the answer an interested party wants, instead of the answer he or she thinks the facts of the subject property, the transaction requested, and the local real estate market warrant, an appraisal is nothing more than a ratification of the loan amount someone has already decided on, and that “someone” isn’t the ultimate bagholder. The real bagholder wants to know whether it is lending too much or risking owning an unsalable piece of REO. That an individual loan officer or broker just wants to know how high we can make the loan amount—and thus a commission—is an artifact of a business structure in which a lender’s own employees or agents are not aligned with its own corporate best interests. At some level the appraisal problem will never get solved until the compensation of loan processing employees and intermediaries gets solved, but that’s not today’s argument.

In the olden days of local lenders, you had either staff appraisers or “fee appraisers.” You could actually have appraisers on your payroll because you lent in a defined local area: you didn’t have to worry about needing an appraisal for a property six states away that your staff appraisers couldn’t get to, even if they were licensed in that state. If you relied on fee appraisers, possibly because it was too expensive to keep appraisers on the payroll during down-cycles in RE, you still worked in a local market, you got to know all of them, and you could order appraisals from people whose work was familiar. If you were smart, you worked with the best appraisers there were. If you were stupid, you channeled business to your golf buddies. A number of S&Ls did the latter, and they did not live happily ever after. We have this thing called FIRREA, which brought into being USPAP, in large part because of that second option.

Once local lenders became regional lenders and then national lenders, the distance between corporate headquarters, the Appraisal Department, and the actual properties and markets grew to the point that having staff appraisers was impractical and hiring fee appraisers was a crap-shoot. You can pick up the Yellow Pages to find an appraiser in a market you just entered, but this means you will learn by doing in terms of quality. That goes double if you entered this market via wholesale lending: you now have a broker you don’t know much about hiring an appraiser you don’t know anything about in an RE market you’ve never done business in before.

The early years of national wholesale lending supplied lots of excitement, as Podunk National Bank changed its name to Ubiquitous, Inc. and charged into market areas about which it knew nothing, on the assumption that, say, Miami is just like Podunk except the loan amounts are bigger. Sometimes this was actually retail lending: Ubiquitous, Inc. started buying up branches in all these new and exciting markets, with the plan of managing them long-distance from corporate headquarters. Often those branches (complete with their employees) could be acquired for amazingly cheap sums of money. The Lender Formerly Known As Podunk often didn’t ask itself why the current owner of that branch wanted out so badly, but that’s hardly a problem unique to mortgage lending or banking.

Eventually, everyone had to deal with the hard knocks. You might be able to justify taking risks on the unknown when you move into a new market, but you still have to do something about the problems that crop up. Everyone got at least some really bad appraisals from the Yellow Pages approach, and had to start making some lists. I really think that a major problem lurking in the industry happened right here, when wholesalers and correspondent lenders made a decision about what kind of list to make. Do you make an “Approved Appraiser” list of the ones you haven’t had problems with, or do you make an “Excluded Appraiser” list of the ones you have had problems with?

There is no question that logically, the most efficient thing to do is make the exclusion list. Even if you believe that there are more than just a few bad apples, you don’t get into the national mortgage lending business if you believe that bad appraisers outnumber good appraisers by a wide margin. Exclusionary lists are just shorter and easier to administrate.

If you’re still a retail lender (just a long-distance one), you can keep the shorter exclusionary list internal to your own organization. The major disadvantage of exclusionary lists developed for the wholesale and correspondent lenders, and for any lender in the “originate and sell” rather than “originate and hold” business. If you are contracting with brokers, correspondent lenders, third-party investors and servicers and other folks who need to conduct due diligence on your loans, you end up having to make your list available to all those parties. It becomes nearly impossible to keep it confidential.

And that started the defamation fear. Too many lenders faced real or imagined threats of lawsuits from appraisers who did not want their names appearing on what had basically become a public hall of shame list. (I hasten to add that these things were not “public” to you, the consumer. They were an open secret to everyone in the business except the consumer.) So even though an approved appraiser list was a much more expensive, time-consuming, cumbersome way to get there, more and more big operations started keeping one. (Why not go to the regulators and beg for a "safe harbor" against defamation liability for exclusion lists? Because lenders are almost never long-sighted enough to ask for regulation that benefits them. They're too afraid that it always comes with the wrong strings attached. Then after the criminal probes and class actions and general shirt-losing, we look back wistfully on those strings we were so afraid of, wondering why we didn't snap that deal right up.)
The HVCC is addressing a very real and widespread appraisal problem. That doesn't mean the solution is perfect - and this shows once again that incentives matter.

An appraiser who is paid only if the loan is made, and is given the target number in advance, has a perverse incentive to "hit the number". However an appraiser that is paid no matter what, possibly has an incentive to be overly conservative and deliver a low ball appraisal that the NAR and NAHB and others are complaining about.

However lenders are still in the business of making loans (hopefully loans that will be repaid) - and the appraisers work for the lenders - and the lenders don't make money if the loan isn't made. So there is still an incentive to get deals done.