Thinking of buying or selling a home?
Even when both sides agree on a price, the deal could fall apart thanks to an under-appraisal.
Here's the increasingly common scenario: The seller lists the house for $325,000, the buyer offers $275,000, and they settle on a $300,000 sales price. A week before closing, the appraisal comes in at $265,000, the maximum upon which the bank or mortgage company is willing to lend.
Who's going to make up the $35,000 shortfall?
"This has proven to be a fairly significant problem," said Walter Molony, senior public affairs specialist with the National Association of Realtors, in Washington.
In the aforementioned scenario, the seller -- having already come down -- typically doesn't want to drop the price further. The buyer may not have the available cash, or may not be willing to pay more than the appraised value.
Consequently, the wheels often fall off the deal.
Short appraisals typically arise in a declining housing market because the lack of recent comparable area homes sales, or "comps," makes it difficult for appraisers to determine the current market value of a property.
When home sales slow, good comps "age" fast. Add foreclosures and short sales to the mix, and appraisals can run all over the map.
The Home Valuation Code of Conduct, or HVCC, that went into effect last May has compounded the problem. The HVCC prohibits Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac lenders from having direct contact with appraisers.
As a result, most lenders have opted to work through appraisal management companies, or AMCs, whose pool of residential appraisers includes those with limited training and/or little familiarity with the geographic area being appraised.
A rash of recent questionable appraisals has prompted the National Association of Realtors and others to call for a moratorium on the new code, Mr. Molony said.
"We were deluged by complaints from our members," he said.
"Our findings show that among successful homebuyers in the last year, 12 to 13 percent experienced a contract cancellation, and this is the cause. Prior to this year, that figure would have been a low single-digit number."
Dean Moss, broker associate with Keller Williams Realty -- Lincoln Square in Chicago, has seen six instances of "severe" under-appraisals this year. While the buyer may lose the dream house and inspection and appraisal fees, the seller is often left with a much larger problem.
That's especially true with Federal Housing Administration or Veterans Affairs deals; in such instances, a file number is assigned to the appraisal, Mr. Moss said.
"So, the next buyer has to look up that file number," he said. "They can't just put that appraisal in a drawer. It puts a permanent mark on the property that impairs its ability to sell."
Leslie Sellers, president of the Appraisal Institute in Chicago, says the root problem lies with the way AMCs are compensated.
"They are paid a fee and they make their money on the spread between what they can get paid from the bank and what they can hire an appraiser for," Mr. Sellers says. "Over a period of time, the lesser and lesser quality appraisers are the ones that end up getting all the work.
"As a result, we have appraisers who do not have competency in how to properly verify sales in declining markets and are using improper sales [comps]. Many times they aren't doing fraudulent things; they just don't know what they don't know."