Residential Appraisals:

Opportunities to Enhance Oversight of an Evolving Industry

GAO-11-783T: Published: Jul 13, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 13, 2011.

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This testimony discusses our work on residential real estate valuations. Real estate valuations, which encompass appraisals and other value estimation methods, play a critical role in mortgage underwriting by providing evidence that the market value of a property is sufficient to help mitigate losses if the borrower is unable to repay the loan. However, recent turmoil in the mortgage market has raised questions about mortgage underwriting practices, including the quality and credibility of some valuations. An investigation into industry appraisal practices by the New York State Attorney General led to an agreement in 2008 between the Attorney General; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the enterprises); and the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which regulates the enterprises. This agreement included the Home Valuation Code of Conduct (HVCC), which set forth certain appraiser independence requirements for loans sold to the enterprises and took effect in 2009. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Pub. L. No. 111-203) (the Dodd-Frank Act) directed us to study the effectiveness and impact of various valuation methods and the options available for selecting appraisers, as well as the impact of HVCC. This testimony summarizes the report we are releasing today, which responds to the mandate in the Dodd-Frank Act. Our work focused on valuations of single-family residential properties for first-lien purchase and refinance mortgages. The report discusses (1) the use of different valuation methods and their advantages and disadvantages, (2) policies and other factors that affect consumer appraisal costs and requirements for lenders to disclose appraisal costs and valuation reports to consumers, and (3) conflict-of-interest and appraiser selection policies and views on the impact of these policies on industry stakeholders and appraisal quality. We consider the impact of HVCC throughout the report..

Available data and interviews with lenders and other mortgage industry participants indicate that appraisals are the most frequently used valuation method for home purchase and refinance mortgage originations. Appraisals provide an opinion of market value at a point in time and reflect prevailing economic and housing market conditions. Data provided to us by the five largest lenders (measured by dollar volume of mortgage originations in 2010) show that, for the first-lien residential mortgages for which data were available, these lenders obtained appraisals for about 90 percent of the mortgages they made in 2009 and 2010, including 98 percent of home purchase mortgages. The data we obtained from lenders include mortgages sold to the enterprises and mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which together accounted for the bulk of the mortgages originated in 2009 and 2010. The enterprises and FHA require appraisals to be performed for a large majority of the mortgages they purchase or insure. For mortgages for which an appraisal was not done, the lenders we spoke with reported that they generally relied on validation of the sales price (or loan amount in the case of a refinance) against a value generated by an automated valuation model (AVM), in accordance with enterprise policies that permit this practice for some mortgages with characteristics associated with a lower default risk. Factors such as the location and complexity of the property affect consumer costs for appraisals. For example, a property may have unique characteristics that are more difficult to value, such as being much larger than nearby properties or being an oceanfront property, which may require the appraiser to take more time to gather and analyze data to produce a credible appraisal. Mortgage industry participants we spoke with told us that the amount a consumer pays for an appraisal is generally not affected by whether the lender engages an appraiser directly or uses an appraisal management company (AMC)--which manages the appraisal process on lenders' behalf--to select an appraiser. They said that AMCs typically charge lenders about the same amount that independent fee appraisers would charge lenders directly, and lenders generally pass on these charges to consumers. In general, lenders, AMC officials, appraisers, and other industry participants noted that consumer costs for appraisals have remained relatively stable in the past several years. However, appraisers have reported receiving lower fees when working with AMCs compared with working directly with lenders because AMCs keep a portion of the total fee. Recently issued policies reinforce long-standing requirements and guidance designed to address conflicts of interest that may arise when direct or indirect personal interests bias appraisers from exercising their independent professional judgment. In order to prevent appraisers from being pressured, the federal banking regulators, the enterprises, FHA, and other agencies have regulations and policies governing the selection of, communications with, and coercion of appraisers. Examples of recently issued policies that address appraiser independence include HVCC, which took effect in May 2009; the enterprises' new appraiser independence requirements that replaced HVCC in October 2010; and revised Interagency Appraisal and Evaluation Guidelines from the federal banking regulators, which were issued in December 2010. Provisions of these and other policies address (1) prohibitions against loan production staff involvement in appraiser selection and supervision; (2) prohibitions against third parties with an interest in the mortgage transaction, such as real estate agents or mortgage brokers, selecting appraisers; (3) limits on communications with appraisers; and (4) prohibitions against coercive behaviors.

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