real estate

How to avoid a low home appraisal

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Highlights
  • Low appraisals can kill deals reached by buyers and sellers.
  • New rules allegedly causing lenders to hire novice appraisers.  
  • Buyers, sellers can take steps to protect themselves.

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?

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"This has proven to be a fairly significant problem," says Walter Molony, senior public affairs specialist with the National Association of Realtors in Washington, D.C.

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.

Bitter pill

Short appraisals typically arise in a declining housing market because the lack of recent comparable area homes sales, or "comps," making 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, Molony says.

"We were deluged by complaints from our members," he says.

"Our findings show that among successful homebuyers in the last year, 12 (percent) 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.

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That's especially true with Federal Housing Administration or Veterans Affairs deals; in such instances, a file number is assigned to the appraisal, Moss says.

"So, the next buyer has to look up that file number," he says. "They can't just put that appraisal in a drawer. It puts a permanent mark on the property that impairs its ability to sell."

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