The ugly truth about appraisal fees

I had a bad experience with an AMC recently and I want to share it. This is not because I’m wanting to rant or be negative, but only to highlight some of the ugliness that happens behind closed doors when it comes to appraisal fees during loans. This is especially worth knowing about for any home owners and real estate agents for the sake of their clients. Any thoughts? I’d love to hear your take. 

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The Issue: I was asked to appraise something challenging, so I quoted a fee that was higher than a standard fee in Sacramento but still reasonable for the job because the house was funky. Anyway, I was comfortable with the fee and it was accepted by the AMC (Appraisal Management Company) that the lender hired to manage the appraisal ordering process. But then things got interesting because through the course of the transaction someone showed me an email from the loan officer where I learned the AMC was actually charging the buyer $345 higher than the fee I quoted. What the? That seemed excessive, but the real clincher for me was the email showed a chain of conversation with the AMC where they said I was the one who quoted the much higher fee. Not only was the AMC gouging the buyer in my opinion, but there was a blatant lie that I was the one dictating this fee that was 43% higher than the one I quoted.

Look, I’m not a complainer and I am a total optimist, but this is not okay on so many levels.

Why this matters:

1) Anger & The Real Fee: Let’s remember the appraisal fee charged to the buyer might be far different from what the appraiser actually gets. Thus before becoming angry at the appraiser for charging so much, try to find out what the appraiser is being paid (and what a market rate is for your area too). Is the appraiser actually getting that rush fee your buyer paid too? Keep in mind many AMCs tell appraisers not to discuss fees, so unfortunately it’s not likely you’re going to get an answer from the appraiser (maybe ask the loan officer to dig around). To complicate matters, it’s common for AMCs to tell appraisers NOT to attach an invoice to the appraisal report, so it’s not easy for anyone to find out how much the appraiser made from the fee the buyer paid unless there are disclosure rules from the state.

2) Appraisal Quality: In many cases AMCs are scraping so much off the top that the appraiser really isn’t making a reasonable market fee. It’s easy to gloss over this as insignificant, but it matters because over time if appraisers do not earn market rate fees it is going to weed out more experienced appraisers from doing loan work. Could this impact quality? I think so. By the way, if you didn’t know, an Appraisal Management Company is NOT used during a private valuation such as a divorce, pre-listing appraisal, estate planning, litigation, hard money loan, bankruptcy, etc… By the way, let me make it clear that not all AMCs are bad either.

3) Longer Turn-Times: At times it’s difficult for an AMC to find an appraiser because a property is so unique or it’s in a rural area. This can be frustrating for everyone else in the real estate transaction because it hands-down makes an escrow longer. Yet sometimes the problem isn’t the lack of an available appraiser, but rather the AMC broadcasting an absurdly low fee to countless appraisers for weeks. If the AMC would have simply started the process with a market rate fee and a realistic turn-time, maybe the order would actually be finished by now.

4) Lack of Transparency: California does not require disclosure on the HUD-1 of the fee paid to the appraiser vs the fee paid to the AMC. Since these fees are not separated, there isn’t any transparency as to what the appraiser and AMC are getting. I would think some buyers would be shocked to learn the appraiser didn’t get the full fee in the first place – not to mention a $345 AMC fee. Why would we not disclose these fees? Can’t we do better at being transparent?

I hope this was helpful or interesting. Any thoughts?

New Video: I made a video called “The market isn’t doing the same thing in every neighborhood.” It’s a quick look at three neighborhoods. Watch below (or here).

Questions: What stands out to you most about what I mentioned above? Anything else to add? Did I miss something? What is the best way to avoid working with bad AMCs?

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When value is higher on one street than another

The cookie cutter tract homes are the easy ones, but sometimes value can change dramatically from one street to another – especially in older eclectic areas. Maybe you’ve seen this before after pulling comps and finding a huge disparity in prices. Today let’s look at an example of this happening to me recently. Any thoughts? I’d love to hear your take.

value higher on one street - sacramento appraisal blog

Values are sometimes all over the place, and that’s exactly what I saw when appraising a house in Carmichael. Take a look below at the graph. How do you think the subject street fits into the market?

Subject street in Carmichael - Sacramento Appraisal Blog

Value Conclusion: When we look at the graph with over 17 years of neighborhood sales, it’s clear properties on the subject street tend to compete toward the mid-to-higher end of the market range (even when they aren’t all that updated). Keep in mind every sale on the graph is between 1600-2100 sq ft, so we are looking at a tight range over a long period of time. You can also see there is a range where most properties have been selling between $350,000 to $500,000 lately.

Some tips for seeing the market in eclectic neighborhoods:

1) Pay close attention to subject street sales: There were 7 available sales for me to look at on the subject street over the past two decades. This might seem limiting, but it’s much better than zero, and ultimately it means I have seven data points that might help me see the context for how the subject street fits into the market. Of course we always have to use good professional judgment and not get caught up in giving too much weight to very little data. 

2) Look through years of data: In an eclectic area where values seem to be all over the place it’s a good idea to study the market by looking at years of sales. The goal is to know how value works and be able to see which streets or types of properties are fetching price premiums. When looking at areas like Fair Oaks, Carmichael, and East Sacramento, this is very key. In this case I appraised the subject property around $450,000, but there were sales within blocks that were coming in between $350,000 to $375,000 with seemingly superior upgrades too (probably why Zillow had this one at $378,000). After studying the market and carefully comparing previous sales on the subject street it was clear the subject street sales were competing at a higher price tier compared to other streets. It would have been a shame if I hastily pulled up three “comps” and brought this one in at $350,000 when the market was clearly willing to pay more.

3) The feel of the street: On paper it might look like we are pulling good “comps”, but then after driving by other streets we might see a lower quality of construction, or unkempt homes, or maybe a negative influence from commercial property.

4) Real estate community: It’s helpful to talk with other real estate professionals who know the neighborhood. I find most real estate agents and appraisers are actually pretty helpful when you call to say, “Hey, I have a question. May I bend your ear for a minute?” I realize not everyone is receptive to talking (lame), but that doesn’t take away the importance of building good relationships in the real estate community so we can exchange information. My advice? When people call you, be the type of person you wish everyone else was. Bottom line. All things considered, it is worth noting we still have to be careful not to impose someone’s perception of the market on our value. So let’s seek insight from others, but let’s also not forget to look at actual data and support the value we say exists.

5) Learn to graph so you can see the market: The graph above was part of my research and it helped me visualize the market. I know, here I am mentioning graphing again, but I only do that because it’s revolutionized the way I see the market. Anyway, here is a tutorial I made for learning to make a basic scatter graph in Excel. If you didn’t know, there are a couple of programs you can use to quickly export neighborhood data from MLS to make graphs. I might suggest looking at Don’s 1004MC program (for locals and some other states (right now his site is down)) and Trendsheet (covers many states). These programs are built for appraisers, but I tell Realtor friends all the time to consider using them and just skip the appraiser stuff. 

UPDATE: I was asked by several people in the comments and by email how to make a graph like the one above, so I made a video tutorial. Check it out here or below.

I hope that was useful or interesting.

Questions: What is #6? Did I miss anything? How do you figure out if there is a value premium for a certain street? How do you avoid choosing the wrong comps? I’d love to hear your take.

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How much value does a huge backyard shop add?

A friend asked me a great question this week. How much value does that huge shop in the backyard add? He wasn’t sure how to pull comps, so I scratched out a few thoughts. Anything to add?

large workshop or garage value - sacramento appraisal blog

1) The market: Can buyers use whatever the structure is? Will they pay for it? These are good questions to ask. At times home owners build things that are so specific to their own needs that the market really might not even want it (or maybe buyers will simply use it for something else). I think of Michael Jackson’s Ferris Wheel at Neverland Ranch or a $125,000 recording studio in the backyard of an area of Sacramento where values are about $225,000. There might be one buyer out there willing to pay a premium, but does that one buyer really represent the market? Remember, lenders are going to lend based on the market.

2) Find something similar: The best way to uncover value for a large workshop is to find a few examples that have sold. Keep in mind we might not find something exactly the same, but we have to do our best to find something we might think of as competitive. In a rural market there are likely many examples, but in a residential market we might have to pour through years worth of sales to find a large workshop, detached garage, or some other competitive structure. We can then compare these sales to others in the neighborhood at the time. How much of a price premium was there if any? For example, I did a search in the Tahoe Park neighborhood and found some large detached structures by looking in MLS under Garage (I selected 3 and 4 detached), # of Garage Spaces (I selected more than 3 spaces to see what structures I could find), and Other Structures (you can select things like “Workshop Building” or “Outbuilding” under this category). It can be tedious to search in MLS, but sometimes it’s surprising how quickly something will come up.

Tahoe Park search

3) Cost: Let’s consider the cost of the structure so we are in tune with quality. This doesn’t mean the market is going to pay more just because it was expensive, but the market will likely recognize quality and pay more for something that is nice (and usable). Home owners often want the market to pay the full cost of whatever was built, but there’s a fat chance of that happening because when people buy something used they tend to expect a discount.

4) Make Something Up: I’m kidding on this one, but I will say at times in real estate we have to use professional judgement when data is extremely limited. This sounds so wishy washy, but there is something to knowing a market and coming up with a range for what we think a group of buyers might realistically pay. In this case we might not give a specific value adjustment for the structure, but we can always consider the value of it in our final number. What I mean is we might see a range of value in a neighborhood for similar properties and end up reconciling the final appraised value for the subject property toward the higher end of the range because the subject has more assets. Be careful on this point though (and don’t spend two minutes on research and simply go straight to #4).

Questions: What is #5? Did I miss anything? How would you figure out the value? I’d love to hear your take.

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Some advice for sellers in an aggressive market

Dear Sellers,

The market feels aggressive out there and you’re probably going to get multiple offers, but let’s have some real talk. Last week I wrote an open letter to buyers, but today I want to share some perspective to help your end of the transaction. Whether you are in Sacramento or elsewhere, I hope this is useful. Any thoughts?

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Advice for sellers in an aggressive market:

1) Don’t get high on the headlines: It’s easy to read articles that say “the market is hot” and then ignore data in the neighborhood. It’s as if we see something in print and price according to the headline instead of actual sales and listings. Right now there are no shortage of articles saying “Sacramento is one of the hottest markets in the nation”, so be careful about getting distracted by the headlines.

2) Don’t aim for the unicorn: It’s easy to price for that one magical unicorn buyer who is going to pay more than anyone else for some reason, but I would advise you to price based on recent similar sales and similar listings that are actually getting into contract. I find some sellers say things like, “A cash investor from San Francisco is going to swoop in and pay top dollar for my property.” Yeah, maybe. But what might also happen is you sit on the market instead of sell because you priced for a mythical buyer instead of a real one.

3) Be careful to not treat the contract price as holy: We like to think there is something holy about a contract price as if price negotiation is finished when a contract is written, but that’s simply not true. If a buyer finds repairs are needed or if an appraisal rightly comes in lower than an inflated contract price, it may be prudent to reduce the price.

4) Remember the difference between “comps” and sales: We like to think all sales are “comps”, but there is a difference between properties that are actually comparable and ones that are simply sales. It’s easy to get distracted by a few high sales in the neighborhood, but if they are nothing like your property, then don’t give them much weight and pay the most attention to homes that are actually similar to yours. In simple terms, if your home was an apple, what have other apples sold for in the neighborhood? Don’t price your apple according to orange or banana sales.

5) Be aware of appraisals being scrutinized: If you haven’t sold a home in years, know the lending world has changed from what it used to be over ten years ago. These days lenders scrutinize appraisals like never before, so be careful about accepting an offer that is incredibly high if there is no way it is going to appraise that high. Of course if the buyer has cash to make up the difference, then you are fine. But if the buyer is strapped for cash, then the highest offer probably isn’t your best option. This is why many agents tell sellers to look for the strongest offer instead of the highest one.

6) Don’t hijack price per sq ft: One of the biggest pricing mistakes sellers make is to take a per sq ft figure from another sale down the street and use that figure to price their property. Here’s the thing though. There isn’t just one price per sq ft figure that applies to every single property in a neighborhood. For example, in East Sacramento the price per sq ft range for all sales last year was $169 to $552. So when a seller says, “Let’s use $552 to price my property,” my question would be, why not $551? Or why not $525? What about $436? Or maybe $278? We can quickly get a price that is far from reasonable if we are only looking at price per sq ft. Keep in mind smaller homes tend to have a much higher price per sq ft too (which I explain with my Starbucks cup analogy). My advice is to pay attention to price per sq ft, but don’t forget to look at actual similar sales in the neighborhood.

east sacramento price per sq ft range - sacramento appraisal blog

7) Try to be objective about your house: Buyers are going to look at your home with a microscope, which means they’ll see the wonderful things as well as the faults. Remember, it’s easy to get sentimental about your property because you have a history there, but memories can also be a mask for not seeing flaws. A seller recently told me, “My house is the most well-built one on the block” (the same builder built the entire tract). Another seller said, “My house is really unique for the neighborhood, which is why it’s worth so much more” (it was totally outdated though). Agents are trying to tell these sellers to price lower because that’s where the market is, but both these homes are likely going to be overpriced because the sellers cannot get past their own subjective views.

8) Be FHA-ready: One in four homes in Sacramento county sold with an FHA loan last year, so it’s a good idea to have your home ready for an FHA appraiser if you think your home might go FHA. Your agent can most likely bring you up to speed on some repairs that might be required or maybe look over an FHA list. Keep in mind 34% of all homes under $300,000 went FHA in 2016 in Sacramento County and the current FHA loan limit is $474,950. This is also a reminder that financed offers are closing escrow and actually far outweighing cash transactions.

9) The market isn’t the same at every price range: We like to think the market is doing the same thing in every price range and neighborhood, but that’s not true. For instance, the market under $300,000 is more aggressive than the market above $1.5M. Thus the market could be “hot” in one price range or neighborhood and cool in another. This is important to remember because all day long we read about how hot the market is in Midtown and how rents are rising there, but that same dynamic might not be present in your neighborhood.

10) Listen to your agent: In a market that feels aggressive it’s easy to ignore pricing advice from agents, so some sellers price at completely unrealistic levels. Despite values showing upward pressure in many price ranges, we are not in a market where you can command whatever price you want (even with anemic inventory). So if your agent is telling you where the market is and showing you similar sales and listings, ask yourself why you are not listening.

I hope this was helpful.

Sincerely,

Ryan

Questions: What piece of advice resonates with you? What is #11? Did I miss something? I’d love to hear your take.

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