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. 

35462423 - closeup of thief taking money out of back pocket over white background

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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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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That place where marijuana & real estate meet

Marijuana is on my mind. In recent weeks Californians voted to make recreational marijuana legal, and I can’t help but consider the impact it might have on real estate. Here are a few things I’ve been mulling over. Anything you’d add?

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1) Land Value: All of a sudden land that is ripe for marijuana growing is looking pretty attractive. I’m not talking about tiny postage stamp lots in subdivisions, but rather larger-sized parcels in outlying areas. The truth is many savvy land buyers have already been making their move on large parcels in surrounding areas to Sacramento, but there are going to be more opportunities out there. I saw one listing recently where an agent said, “Good for ‘income-producing crops'” (code for pot). For further reference, here is an article discussing a “green rush” in Yolo County (people setting up marijuana businesses). 

2) Home Experimentation: I expect to see more owners and renters trying to grow their own weed at home. Some will grow a few plants, but others will aim to start a business to make some money in an economy that still isn’t all that vibrant.

3) Commercial Vacancies & Rents: If California ends up being anything like Denver, which has nearly 4 million square feet of commercial space used for cannabis production, I’m guessing we’ll see more interest in industrial properties and higher rents in certain areas. Goodbye commercial vacancies. Here is an image from The Sacramento Bee to show all the locations where pot can be grown in Sacramento. Image created by Nathaniel Levine.


4) Disclosures: Talking about marijuana in contracts, listings, and appraisals isn’t anything new in real estate, but my sense is if it becomes more common to see pot growing in homes, we’ll need to hone our skills and consider what disclosure needs to look like. By the way, could the smell of a nearby pot farm need to be disclosed? As an appraiser I’m concerned with the condition of the house. There is obviously a huge difference between a massive grow operation with hundreds or thousands of plants and a home owner with a few plants. What I’m going to be looking for is anything that might make an impact on value or a health and safety issue – exposed wiring, over loaded plug-ins, poor ventilation, mold, etc… I’m not there to nark or judge by any stretch, but only figure out the value (and discuss and photograph anything that impacts value).


5) Advertising: I took my family to Portland last week to enjoy Thanksgiving, and it was amazing to see how much advertising there was for pot (because it’s legal there). Everywhere I turned Downtown there was another weed billboard, A-frame sign, or a green cross (the symbol of a dispensary). Please don’t think I’m dissing Portland because I love the city and can’t wait to go back. I’m just saying we might expect to see the same thing in California when it comes to advertising. Can signs impact the feel of a city or neighborhood? Will there be more signs in certain areas than others? Time will tell.

6) Marijuana Branding: I’m waiting for more in the real estate community to go public with their MJ branding. Last month a Sacramento law firm announced its marijuana practice. Ironically one of the partners has the last name Kronick, which is oh so close to Chronic. Anyway, there is still available shelf space for weed branding such as “Marijuana Realtor”, “Cheebah Appraiser”, and “Mary Jane Lender.” I’m kidding. Sort of.

7) Loans on “Grow” Properties: Some lenders don’t want to lend on properties that are being used for marijuana growth (keep in mind this likely doesn’t mean just a few plants). Here is some direction from a certain bank I sometimes work for when it comes to this issue. This unnamed bank sent out a message to its appraisers regarding grow houses:

####### Bank is currently unable to lend on any property with marijuana grow operations. The marijuana industry is state regulated and ####### Bank is federally regulated. Therefore, we are not in a position to lend to borrowers with income from that source nor can we lend on properties with active marijuana grow rooms or facilities. 

If you encounter a property with an active marijuana grow operation, please take at least one descriptive photo, complete your inspection of the property then cease work on the file and immediately contact your ####### Bank Appraisal Coordinator. Please do not attempt to quote ####### Bank lending policy. We will take care of that and you will, of course, be compensated for the time you’ve already invested in the appraisal.

I hope that was interesting or helpful.

Questions: Anything to add? Did I miss something? What impact do you think the legalization of marijuana might have on real estate? If you are located in a state where marijuana has been legal, what advice do you have for Sacramento? I’d love to hear your take.

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The problem with non-permitted additions in real estate

Non-permitted additions can cause huge problems. Last week I wrote about how I valued a garage conversion without permits, and I wanted to follow up with some expanded thoughts. As I mentioned, in this situation I gave value to a conversion because I was able to show the market was willing to pay for it. Yet it’s not always that easy, so let’s dig deeper. By the way, props to Cynthia, Gary, and Bryan for stellar blog comments that prodded me to follow-up. Any thoughts?

54025005 - demolishing the old kitchen - exposing the studs, existing plumbing and electrical work

Issues when dealing with a lack of permits:

1) Lenders & Appraisers: Here’s the bottom line. Some lenders don’t want to lend on properties with non-permitted additions. In short, a non-permitted area might have legitimate value in the market, but some lenders will tell appraisers NOT to give the space any value. At the same time other lenders are okay with value being given, but they want appraisers to show a few comps with similar non-permitted areas to prove the market is willing to pay for the space (that’s tricky to find).

2) Illegal: Does the addition conform with what zoning allows? This is a key question. For instance, if zoning only allows one unit and the seller has a non-permitted second unit that hands-down would never be allowed, it’s an enormous liability for an appraiser to be giving value to something like that. Likewise, imagine if an addition was built within the setbacks on a site, which would make it illegal and maybe even a safety issue.

3) Building Department Reaction: Is it likely the non-permitted area can become permitted? What is it going to cost? This is where it’s worth giving the building department a call. I don’t recommend mentioning a specific address at first so you don’t raise red flags, but call and maybe ask about a hypothetical situation to see what the cost and feasibility might be for getting permits. Remember, not all markets are the same either. For instance, since 1976 the City of Davis has had a program where building inspectors visit all properties before they close escrow to ensure there are no code violations. In short, you can’t get away with non-permitted additions in Davis if you plan to sell (but you can elsewhere).

4) The Struggle of Different Opinions: A friend gave me a call to talk through a situation with a garage that was converted into a second unit without permits. The appraiser gave little weight to the addition because of zoning issues, but the seller thought it should have carried more weight. There was a solid back-up offer on the table, but regardless of whether this addition was worth more or not, the thing I told my friend was there was no guarantee a future appraiser or lender was going to see the situation any differently. Owners in scenarios like this tend to say, “The lack of permits wasn’t a problem when we first bought the house”, but guidelines and what appraisers report might have changed over time. Moreover, not every appraiser or lender is going to see things the same way.

Advice about non-permitted areas:

1) Minimal value: Expect there is generally going to be less value for something not permitted than something fully permitted (thanks Captain Obvious).

2) Bigger is Bigger: Buyers seem to ignore smaller-ticket items that weren’t permitted, but the bigger something is, the more likely it is going to be a bigger deal that it wasn’t permitted. For example, there is a huge difference between a non-permitted covered patio and a 400 sq ft addition that was not permitted.

3) Glorified Storage: Keep in mind an appraiser might be instructed by a lender to count a non-permitted area as storage instead of living space. So that second story attic conversion might be really sweet, but an appraiser might end up treating it like storage instead of extra square footage.

4) The Easy Answer: Getting permits can help avoid future loan problems. Be sure to keep a copy of the permit too so any appraiser or buyer can see everything has been signed off.

NOTE ON GIVING VALUE TO SOLAR: This is off-topic, but there was a recent class on solar and it was apparently mentioned I do not give value to solar systems. That’s not accurate. However, I have said a LEASED solar system does not get value because it’s personal property. Just wanted to clarify. You can read this post and another for some thoughts on solar.


Questions: How have you seen a lack of permits impact a transaction or appraisal? Would you buy a home if it had an addition that was not permitted? Did I miss something? I’d love to hear your take.

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