from Local Attorney, Michael H. Wasserman

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Mortgage Appraiser's View of the "Mortgage Crisis"

The news media is rife with reports of significant declines in home sales and high foreclosure rates. At this point, this is pretty old news. Just ask any realtor, real estate attorney, or title company employee. We know this from our own levels of activity, or lack thereof.

So what do we do when we run out of work? We try to figure out who's to blame! There is much finger pointing and hand wringing over the causes; lax loan underwriting; irresponsible buyers/borrowers; greedy institutional investors; poor governmental overshight; mortgage scammers. Chose your favorite. All share responsibility to some degree.

Myself, I have always looked first to unscrupulous, opportunistic loan originators. Not ALL loan originators, lets be very clear about this. The ones who over-promised, over-sold, and under-delivered. I have equally dim views of some insurance/annuity salesmen, car finance guys, and boiler room stock brokers. A common denominator among them all is that they are all commission driven salesmen who are willing to put their own compensation ahead of the customers they "serve." Whatever the industry, clients end up paying more than they should and often get inferior service and products to boot. At worst, as we are seeing much more server consequences; those record mortgage foreclosure rates, and now predictions of record auto repossessions, too.

Human nature, I guess, but I am always on the lookout for facts and circumstances that support my bias. Found something yesterday at the Illinois Real Estate Lawyers Association's monthly meeting, Phillip A. Farina, President of Urban Residential Appraisal, LLC. gave us his perspective on the mortgage crisis.

Appraisers are pretty much the first ones who were thrown under the bus when the "crisis" became widespread. Most fraud schemes involve some type of bogus or grossly inflated appraised value for a given property (properties) so as to induce lenders to loan more money than they otherwise would be inclined. The scammers either pocket the money themselves, and/or reap the commission-profits and/or sale profits. Sometimes the false appraisals originate from corrupt appraisers who are in on the scam. Others have used identity theft to submit bogus appraisals using a reputable appraisers credentials. Farina was understandably defensive about this. He thinks that the industry is getting a bum rap.

But not all bad appraisals or bad loans are the result of mortgage scamming. There are systemic problems as well. Who does Farina point the finger at? Commission driven, unscrupulous loan originators and commission driven realtors!

Farina painted a fairly dire marketplace in which loan officers and processors are calling appraisers and asking them to "bid" for work based on guaranteed high values, before they are assigned, or let the appraisers examine the properties.

According to Farina, he and others are told "give me the value I want, or I am going to hire someone else".

Those loan officers are buttressed by real estate agents who are also anxious to see contracts close who will pester and harass the appraisers in an effort to assure that the high price contract can go through.

Farina frames the issue facing appraisers this way: They (the appraisers) are being asked every day, should I maintain my integrity and independence and go out of business for lack of clients, or should i soften my standards and give the loan originators what they ask for. Tough choice, I have no doubt.

I asked Joe Wilcox of the Wilcox Company, another prominent appraisal firm here in Chicago about this practice of lenders trying to pressure appraisers to provide "the right answer" before assigning files. Joe is a man of strong character and integrity and while he confirmed that he gets receives these requests, they come from loan officers he does not work with regularly and who seem to be shopping such files to find anyone who will help out. Since his company has made its reputation on independent valuations, he prefers to work with his existing customers who know that he will not cut corners in this fashion.

Wilcox (and Farina) both also point out that the underwriters who review finished appraisal reports and ultimately decide whether loans are made or denied have tightened the standards for appraisal reports significantly. The stricter guidelines they are handing down make it much harder for appraisers to overstate the values of properties. Even if the loan originators want to be aggressive about property values, the underwritering standards may well restrain appraisers from granting those wishes.

Still and all, as long as appraisers are beholden to the loan officers who "feed" them business, there is going to be the potential for undue influence on the otherwise independent appraisers and less than honest reporting of their valuations of homes and condos.

UPATE: April 14, 2008: On March 3, 2008, Fannie May, Freddie Mac, the NY Attorney General and the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight reached agreement to address this problem. Effective January 1, 2009, mortgage brokers will no longer be able to order "Made as Instructed" appraisals (requests for appraisals that contain instructions for a report to match the purchase price, or that have real or implied threats that continued business orders will only be made if the appraiser establishes a property's value "as instructed."

After December 31, only specially trained broker employees will be allowed to order appraisers and brokers will be prohibited from exerting any type of pressure on appraisers to influence their findings.