There was a really good appraisal story in the Sunday Real Estate Section this weekend by Lisa Prevost focusing on appraising high end properties  whose theme is well-captured in the opening sentence:
As home sales pick up in the million-dollar-plus market, deals are being complicated by unexpectedly low appraisal values.
The higher the price strata of the market, the smaller the data set is to work with so the conventional wisdom seems to be that less data = more unreliable appraisals. However I believe the real problem is lack of market knowledge by more appraisers today as a result of May 2009’s Home Valuation Code of Conduct (HVCC)  – the lack of data at the top of the market merely exposes a pervasive problem throughout the housing market.
To the New York Times’ credit, they are the only national media outlet that has been consistently covering the appraisal topic since the credit crunch began and I appreciate it since so few really understand our challenges  as well as our our roles and relationship to the parties in the home buying and selling process. Appraising gets limited coverage in the national media aside from NAR’s constantly blaming of the appraisers as preventing a housing recovery (in their clumsy way of articulating the problem, they are more right than wrong).
Here’s the recent NYT coverage:
January 27, 2013 Appraising High-End Homes 
January 11, 2013 Understanding the Home Appraisal Process 
October 12, 2012 Scrutiny for Home Appraisers as the Market Struggles
June 14, 2012 When the Appraisal Sinks the Deal 
May 8, 2012 Accuracy of Appraisals Is Spotty, Study Says 
September 16, 2011 Decoding the Wide Variations in House Appraisals 
The general theme and style of coverage comes about when Realtors start seeing an increase in deals blowing up that involve the appraisal. The Prevost article indicates that higher end sales are more at risk because the market at the top (think pyramid, not as in ponzi) is smaller and therefore the data set is smaller.
This may be true but I don’t think that is the cause of the problem but rather it exposes the problem for what it really is. I contend that the problem starts with the appraisal management company (AMC) industry  and how it has driven the best appraisers out of business or pushed them into different valuation emphasis besides bank appraisals by splitting the appraisal fee with the appraiser (the mortgage applicant doesn’t realize that half their appraisal fee is going to a bureaucracy).
My firm does a much smaller share of bank appraisals than our historical norm these days but it is NIRVANA and we’re not likeley to return to our old model anytime soon.
Since the bank-hired AMC relies on appraisers who will work for half the market rate and therefore need to cut corners and do little analysis to survive, they generally don’t have local market knowledge often driving from 2 to 3 hours away.
Throw very little data into the equation as well as a very non-homogonous housing stock at the luxury end of the market and voila! there is an increased frequency of blown appraisal assignments.
There is always less data at the top of the market – the general lack of expertise in bank appraisals today via the AMC process is simply exposed for its lack of reliability. Unfortunately the appraisal disfunction affects many people’s financial lives unnecessarily such as buyers, sellers and real estate agents (and good appraisers not able to work for half the market rate and cut corners on quality).
The appraisal simply is not a commodity as it is treated by the banking industry. The appraisal is a professional service so by dumbing it down through the AMC process, they have succeeded in nearly destroying the ability to create a reliable valuation benchmark on the collateral for each mortgage in order to be able to make informed decisions on their risk exposure.