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Homebuyers Crash Into Appraisal Roadblock

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New, tighter rules on property values hold up transactions.

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Mortgage guidelines have become increasingly strict -- not to mention regimented -- as the private secondary-mortgage market has all but disappeared in the past 24 months. But according to the Wall Street Journal, appraisals are increasingly becoming one of the biggest hurdles for new purchase and refinance transactions.

In the wake of the recent collapse in home prices, appraisers have come under fire for bowing to lender demands during the boom, offering up property values more aligned with lenders' wishes than with reality. In 2007, the state of New York sued Washington Mutual -- now owned by JPMorgan (JPM) -- for colluding with a subsidiary of First American Corporation to overinflate home values.

Collusion between appraisers and mortgage brokers, real-estate agents, banks, and borrowers helped fuel runaway price appreciation. In response, Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) -- the 2 government-owned giants that control around two-thirds of the mortgage market -- issued new guidelines dictating how lenders can select and evaluate appraisals. The new policies went into effect May 1.

To help facilitate the new, tighter rules, lenders are using appraisal management companies, or AMCs, which employ networks of appraisers around the country to provide what purport to be unbiased value analysis. All this, of course, comes at a cost which is ultimately borne by borrowers.

And, in what could be considered ironic if it weren't so repellent, appraisers are crying foul.

This from a group whose moral backbone during the housing boom most closely resembled that of a jellyfish - one seemingly incapable of preventing its members from being wooed by banks into committing fraud.

An appraisal is simply one person's opinion of a home's value on a given day. And although that person is licensed to provide such an opinion, the very nature of an appraisal renders its usefulness as a true risk management tool questionable at best.

The growing use of AMCs, opponents argue, reduces appraisal quality even as it increases costs. Appraisers are selected based on proprietary quality scoring mechanisms employed by each AMC, which may or may not be a good measure of reliability. And since AMCs take on average a 40% cut on the total appraisal fees and lenders demand quick turnaround, appraisers are working for less on a tighter timeline.

Sure, fraud may be reduced, but incompetence could more than make up for that as AMCs scramble to employ barely capable appraisers in order to ensure complete geographic coverage for their clients.

The real losers in all this -- as is the case when poorly conceived regulation is aimed at making up for past mistakes without proper consider for the root cause of those mistakes -- are homeowners, who must now pay more for a property valuation mechanism that isn't likely to be much better than the old one.
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