Many buyers and sellers are finding out that in today's down market, houses aren't worth what they thought they were. At least not in the eyes of appraisers hired to tell lenders what the places could fetch on the open market if borrowers failed to make their payments.
In a perfect world, the value of a property is what a ready, willing and able buyer will pay for it. But values rise and fall -- maybe not on a daily basis but over a period of several months. And in the appraisal world, valuations are based on previous sales, so appraisers are always a step or two behind the market -- going up and going down.
Moreover, the art of appraising is just that -- an art, not an exact science. And even though those who practice it hold the fate of sellers, buyers and refinancers in their hands, they are not gods. Indeed, they are fallible, just like everyone else. If you believe yours has made a mistake, you can appeal the finding to your lender.
That's important to keep in mind, especially in today's world of housing finance, where more and more lenders are turning to third-party appraisal-management companies to hand out assignments instead of hiring appraisers directly.
The idea is to protect appraisers from pressure to inflate their valuations. That's the theory, anyway, and it may indeed stop any schemes to compel appraisers to bump up their findings.
But at the same time, many sellers contend that the use of middlemen has caused all sorts of problems, not the least of which is that much of the work is going to inexperienced out-of-towners who don't know their jobs or their markets and are not as thorough as they might be.
To appeal an appraisal you believe is too low, start by finding out whether yours is a full-blown appraisal or an electronic one. More lenders are using automated valuations, particularly in the home-equity sector, to speed up the process and cut costs. But they are notoriously inaccurate.
AVMs, or automated valuation models, are good enough to give lenders a 30,000-foot view of local housing values. But they just won't do on a house-by-house basis. Neither will "drive-by appraisals," in which the appraiser never leaves the car to actually go inside but rather simply drives by the place to make sure that it is there.
If your lender is relying on an AVM or a drive-by, ask to have your place valued by someone who actually looks at your house, compares it with others in the neighborhood, checks out the community and does all the things an appraiser is supposed to do. In most cases, lenders will bow to your wishes, especially if you are willing to write a check for several hundred dollars to cover a full appraisal.
If a real, live appraiser is responsible for a valuation you think has come in too low, your appeal becomes a little more problematic -- if only because you are dealing with human beings, who, unlike machines, have feelings. So to keep your appeal from becoming an exercise in futility, do it with as much finesse as possible.
Suggest, firmly but nicely, that the appraiser assigned by the lender erred and request that she be asked to take a second look.
Of course, you can always ask for a second opinion from another appraiser. But you'll have to pay the freight a second time too. Moreover, to stand any chance of winning your point, the second valuation must be more than 5% higher than the first. In the appraisal game, anything less is considered an acceptable difference.
Besides, even if the second appraisal is far above the first, it's the lender, not you, who gets to pick the appraisal on which the loan is based.
You can grease the wheel further by doing some of the appraisal spadework on your own. It takes time and effort, but it could pay off in the long run.
Search out "comparables" that the appraiser may have missed the first time around. A comparable is a property of the same size and style in the same location and with the same features as the one being appraised.
To determine a fair-market value for the subject property, appraisers look for recent sales of several comparable properties.
Normally, however, they limit their search for "comps" to the local Multiple Listing Service. And when they do that, they may not be looking at the entire market.
Even though enough sales pass through the typical MLS that an appraiser should have little trouble finding comparables, not every deal goes through the system. Independent brokers who are not MLS members account for some sales, and others are made without the help of an agent. Then, too, some MLS members don't put all their listings into the system.
As a result, in some major markets as many as half of all transactions occur outside the MLS. Your job is to find them. And to do that, you'll have to comb the land records at the local courthouse.
Remember, though, that you are not just looking for sales in the same general neighborhood. You want at least two, but preferably three, of the same style, size and features. Also, sales should be no more than 6 months old, and the more recent the better.
If the search bears no fruit, turn your attention to the comps cited by the appraiser. Sometimes they are not really comparable.
More often than not, the appraiser's knowledge of the comps is based entirely on their description in the MLS or the public records.
Often, those narratives are far from accurate. Sometimes they're incomplete.
Worse, if the comps are short sales or foreclosures, as they frequently are in today's slow market, they may be less than worthless.
The trick here is to find as many differences as possible in your favor, differences the appraiser may not have known about or failed to consider. One often-overlooked item is the age of the comparable house, another is the size of the lot, and a third is room size.
Of course, this kind of detective work requires that you visit comparable properties with pad, pencil, tape measure and a sharp eye for detail. It also helps that they have cooperative occupants who will let you snoop around. But if you tell them your purpose, they should be willing to cooperate.
Most appraisers are aware enough of their shortcomings so that if your sleuthing turns up major differences, they should be willing to reevaluate their original valuation.