Without enforcement, new rules on appraisals may be business as usual

( Samantha Ganey)
Friday, October 29, 2010; 9:04 AM

You may have missed it, but the Federal Reserve proposed far-reaching new rules Oct. 18 that could affect home real estate appraisals - and millions of owners' equity holdings - nationwide.

The interim rules, which are scheduled to take effect in December and be finalized in the spring, prohibit outside interference in appraisers' valuations and require lenders to report evidence of appraiser misconduct to regulatory authorities. They replace the Home Valuation Code of Conduct imposed on the mortgage and real estate industries last year by giant investors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

But here's a key practical question: Under the Fed's proposals, are you as a buyer, seller or refinance applicant certain to be protected against inaccurate valuations produced by appraisers working for low fees who are unfamiliar with your local market?

Complaints about such problems exploded in many parts of the country after Fannie and Freddie adopted their code, and critics flocked to Capitol Hill to get federal appraisal rules changed. That appeared to be accomplished when Congress passed the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in July. The law instructed the Fed to issue replacement rules for home appraisals - eliminating the Fannie-Freddie code - within 90 days after enactment of the legislation.

So what sort of changes are you likely to see? Experienced appraisers say probably not enough, at least in the proposal's current form.

"It's just a rehash of the [code]," says Pat Turner, a Richmond area appraiser and critic of the Fannie-Freddie rules.

Leslie Sellers, president of the 26,000-member Appraisal Institute, a professional group based in Chicago, says the Fed's proposals include important core principles of freedom from coercion and outside influence on valuations but don't lessen the current system's tilt toward cut-rate fees and short turnaround times over appraisal quality.

Frank Gregoire, past chairman of the Florida Real Estate Appraisal Board and incoming chairman of the National Association of Realtors' appraisal committee, says that "until the federal banking agencies decide to enforce some of the words they're putting on paper, the public can expect business as usual."

What exactly is business as usual? Most consumers don't understand the system or where the hundreds of dollars they're charged for an appraisal at settlement really go. Here's a quick overview:

In all likelihood, the money you pay isn't just going to the person who does the actual appraisal. It gets split up - and sometimes your lender is getting a sizable chunk of the action. An estimated two-thirds of all home appraisals are produced by appraisal management companies, some of them owned in whole or part by big banks.

Many of those companies have slashed appraiser fees from traditional norms, which delivered $400 or $500 to the appraiser, and only hire appraisers who agree to work for $175 to $200. They also require fast turnarounds, with complete appraisals delivered within 24 to 36 hours of the assignment.

Since experienced appraisers generally refuse to work for such low compensation and rushed delivery demands, many appraisals are assigned to newcomers to the field. In some cases, critics charge, the jobs go to inexperienced appraisers who are willing to travel far beyond their home markets to get the assignment.

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