WASHINGTON - If the audience's response during a special session on mortgage credit at the National Association of Realtors' midyear legislative meetings is any indication, appraisals are still a big issue for front-line realty agents.
When a question was raised about valuations, it drew a collective groan from Realtors who packed a ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel here last week. And when NAR President Ron Phipps, the president of Phipps Realty in Warwick, R.I., framed their problem, the crowd burst into applause.
Agents, of course, would like more customers. So would lenders. But to hear the realty folks tell it, many of the deals they've managed to put together during these tough economic times are falling apart because of faulty appraisals.
Appraisals "are a very raw nerve for us," Phipps said. Lenders sometimes require six, seven, eight, even nine "comparables" when three used to do just fine, he noted.
Phipps said "those of us in the field" understand why the valuation process had to be reengineered. But as it is now, he added, "the process no longer respects the ebb and flow" of the marketplace.
"We need common sense, not just transparency," he said. "No one size always fits all; there can't always be a direct match."
The panelists included David Stevens, the former Federal Housing Administration commissioner who now is president of the Mortgage Bankers Association; Cara Heiden, co-president for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage; and Doug Jones, consumer sales and institutional mortgage services executive at Bank of America Home Loans. They were largely sympathetic to the Realtors' plight, but they didn't offer any answers.
Stevens said lenders "care" that houses are appraised correctly, just as Realtors do, so "we struggle with this collectively." But he pushed another hot button with realty professionals when he noted that it violates appraisal standards when someone who works in a distant territory is assigned to value a property in a market with which he is not familiar. That point drew another big cheer, an indication that "traveling" is still an issue.
Martin Eakes, chief executive of the Self-Help Credit Union in North Carolina and co-CEO of the Center for Responsible Lending, drew a round of applause when he suggested that banks, servicers and investors should be barred from having any ownership interest in an appraisal or an appraisal management company.
"It's not just about the independence of the process," Eakes said, pointing out that owners make money every time they order and reorder an appraisal. "Common sense tells you that this is a conflict of interest."
The symposium on mortgage liquidity - ensuring a steady flow of capital to creditworthy buyers is "our No. 1 priority," said Phipps - also touched on whether underwriters have overcompensated for poor decisions that led to the mortgage market debacle.
On that point, Heiden did nothing to appease the NAR's 1 million members when she said it's not that the underwriting pendulum has swung too far, but that buyers "are just too intimidated" now.
Underwriters "had to get back to rock-solid underwriting, and they have," she said. But would-be buyers "have heard how tight [the market] is, so they are not venturing forth."
Fannie Mae President Michael Williams probably didn't mollify realty agents, either, when he said his troubled company is "pretty comfortable" at the moment with credit quality. "Over time, we can look at where we might have overcompensated," Williams said.
But for now, he suggested that creditworthy buyers who have been nudged aside because of larger down-payment requirements and other underwriting changes turn to state and local housing initiatives for help.
Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, now the president of the National Urban League, agreed with Stevens that underwriting is a complicated issue. But he warned lenders not to allow the "technicalities of risk and pricing to lead to retreat back into the 20th century. "What is not complicated is the value of homeownership as the centerpiece of the American dream," Morial said. "We cannot allow the discussion to become so confusing that we forget that ownership is an aspiration for many Americans. People need to be housed."