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Housing demand is rising rapidly, but a key cog in the wheel to homeownership is in deep trouble. The people most needed to close the deal are disappearing. Appraisers, the men and women who value homes and whom mortgage lenders depend upon, are shrinking in numbers.
That is causing growing delays in closings, costing buyers and sellers money and in some cases even scuttling deals.
The share of on-time closings has dropped from 77 percent last April to 64 percent today for loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, according to Campbell/Inside Mortgage Finance. Appraisal-related issues in these delays jumped by 50 percent in that time.
"The appraisal shortage is massive. You're seeing significant delays, you're seeing cost increases, you're seeing rate [locks] expire," said Brian Coester, CEO of Rockville, Maryland-based CoesterVMS, a national appraisal management company.
Since 2007, when the U.S. housing market came crashing down, the number of appraisers has shrunk by 22 percent, according to the Appraisal Institute, an industry association. With so few new cadets, the current population of appraisers is aging. More than 60 percent are over the age of 50.
Ironically, the decline in new appraisers is largely due to new regulations designed to safeguard both banks and borrowers. They were put in place at the end of 2008 by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the FHA, as the entire mortgage banking community was under strict scrutiny after the financial crisis. They changed the rules that would allow appraiser apprentices to do full appraisals and instead require the licensed appraiser to be on-site for the inspection.
The result is that appraisers no longer see a need to pay apprentices, but at the same time, licensing requirements to become an appraiser include 2,500 hours of appraisal experience to be completed in two years as an apprentice.
"The typical appraiser, he's going to do approximately 10-15 appraisals a week. For him to be able to take a trainee, he needs the ability for the trainee to go ahead and inspect the property for him," said Coester. "The rules have changed now, and you cannot do what you used to be able to do 10 years ago, which is hire three to four trainees and really have them go and inspect the properties, go and do work for you and really function as an apprentice. That market has been completely eliminated."
At 1 p.m. on a Monday in Frederick, Maryland, appraiser Joyce Smith has already valued three homes and is walking into the fourth. A 23-year veteran of the business, she said she has never been this busy.
"I get calls five, six, seven, eight times a day. I used to go far away to do appraisals, but there are so many, I don't have to go very far anymore," said Smith.
In some of the nation's hottest housing markets, where sales are up double digits compared to a year ago, the shortage means searching far and wide for an appraiser.
"We've been hearing from our agents in Colorado about significant delays in getting appraisals done," said Alina Ptaszynski, a spokesperson for Redfin. "Our Denver market manager said for one deal, the appraiser came in from Cheyenne, Wyoming. She reported it taking up to seven weeks to get an appraisal done. Valuations aren't the concern as much as the delays."
Valuations are, however, becoming increasingly important, as home price gains accelerate, and competition in the market heats up. Prices could change in the course of two months, the delay time it is now taking in some markets to have an appraisal done. Mortgage rates are also starting to move in a wider range, and that makes rate-locks ever more important. It can cost significant cash to extend a rate lock.
Changes in the appraisal system are being considered, but there is currently no short-term fix.
"When they removed the trainee to be able to inspect the property, I don't think they understood the trickle-down effect it would have on the entire mortgage market nor did they understand how trainees were used by the appraisers within the mortgage market," said Coester.