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The Wild, Wild West of Automated Valuations

Recently the OCC, FDIC and the Federal Reserve proposed raising the de minimis threshold for residential properties below which appraisals are not required to complete a home loan. Currently, most homes transacting at $250K and above require an appraisal, but Federal regulators propose to raise that level to $400K. A November 30th Wall Street Journal article raises some interesting issues about the topic. They reported that the number of appraisers is down 21% since the housing crisis, but more homes require an appraiser, since more and more homes exceed the threshold each year. The article also states that these factors open the door for cheaper, faster and “largely untested” property valuations based on computer algorithms, also known as Automated Valuation Models (AVMS).

At AVMetrics, we have been continuously testing AVMs for over 15 years, so we’ve seen how they’ve performed over time. As an example, the accompanying chart shows model performance accuracy as measured by mean absolute error, a statistical metric of valuation error.  We utilize many statistical measures of evaluating model accuracy and precision, and they all show significant improvement in AVMs over time. And, as these automated tools get better and the workforce of appraisers continues to shrink, the FFIEC members’ proposed change seems warranted, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their critics.

Mean Absolute Error of all tested AVM models for the last 10 years

Ratish Bansal of Appraisal Inc was quoted in The Journal describing the state of AVMs as “a wild, wild West,” inviting, “abuse of all kind.” Furthermore, he contrasts that with the voluminous regulatory standards covering the use of appraisals.

We note much of those voluminous standards represent nearly the same quality control that was in place before the Credit Crisis.  In other words, appraisals are not a guarantee against collateral risk.  They are simply one tool in the toolbox – an effective, but comparatively time consuming and expensive tool. Also of note, far from being the “wild, wild west,” AVMs are also governed by regulators, most notably, Appendix B of the Appraisal and Evaluation Guidelines (OOC 2010-42) and Model Risk Management guidance (OCC 2011-12). These regulatory guidelines require that AVM developers be qualified, users of AVMs use robust controls, incentives be appropriate, and models be tested regularly and thoroughly with out-of-sample benchmarks. They require documentation of risk assessments and stipulate that a Board of Directors must oversee the use of all models. In other words, if AVMs were the “the wild, wild west” they would be rooted in a town with oversight of the legendary Wyatt Earp.

My strong feeling is that appraisals should not be a sole and exclusive tool when evaluations can be effectively employed in appropriate, lower-risk scenarios. Appraisers are a valuable and limited resource, and they should be employed at (to use appraisal terminology) their highest and best use.  Trying to be a “manual AVM” is not the highest and best use of a highly qualified appraiser.  Their expertise should be focused on the qualitative aspects of property valuation such as the property condition and market and locational influences. They should also be focused on performing complex valuation assignments in non-homogeneous markets.  AVMs do not capture and analyze the qualitative aspects of a property very well, and they still stumble in markets with highly diverse house stock or houses with less quantifiable attributes such as view properties.

However, several companies are developing ways of merging the robust data processing capabilities of an AVM with the qualitative assessment skills of appraisers.  Today, these products typically use an AVM at their core and then satisfy additionally required evaluation criteria (physical property condition, market and location influences) with an additional service.  For example, a lender can wrap a Property Condition Report (PCR) around the AVM and reconcile that data in support of a lending decision.  This type of “Hybrid valuation” is on the track we’re headed down.  Many companies have already created these types of products for commercial and proprietary use.

We at AVMetrics believe in using the right tool for the job, and we believe there is a place for automated valuations in prudent lending practices. We think the smarter approach would be to marginally raise the de minimis threshold, but simultaneously to provide additional guidance for considering other aspects of a lending decision, specifically, collateral considerations and eligibility criteria for appraisal exemptions such neighborhood homogeneity, property conformity, market conditions and more.

Raising the De Minimis Threshold – Fear Not!

Background

There is a lot of controversy about appraisals and Appraisers these days, and the FFIEC proposed rule change – increasing the de minimis threshold to $500,000 – allowing for an appraisal exemption and the use of an evaluation in lieu of an appraisal – has sparked anxiety in the world of collateral risk.  Our colleagues at the Collateral Risk Network (CRN) expressed their opposition to the proposal. Not surprisingly for a group of its size, there are diverse opinions at the individual membership level of the group.  Our opinion is that the change – far from being the catastrophe imagined – will in fact have some important benefits.

A Place for De Minimis

While the CRN and certain appraiser blogs expressed skepticism – to put it mildly – we believe that there is a place for an appropriate de minimis level, even the $500,000 level now being considered.  On low risk transactions, evaluations (as opposed to full appraisals) can be appropriate and even beneficial for risk management of the overall lending system.

Here’s why.  Lending volumes tend to scale up and down faster than the supply of appraisers.  As a result, boom cycles in the lending business can place extreme pressure on appraisers.  This scenario makes quality control extremely challenging.  The option to leverage efficient evaluations on low risk transactions can improve the risk management of the entire system by devoting limited appraisal resources to their highest and best use.  In other words, when you place strain on a system, something has to give, and raising the de minimis threshold enables lenders to focus scarce resources on the riskier transactions.

Evaluations and the Credit Crisis

The CRN expressed concern about allowing the mistakes of the recent Credit Crisis to be repeated, and we could not be in more agreement.  However, their letter insinuated that evaluations (specifically BPOs and AVMs) were to blame for inflated valuations.  Of the vast number and type of quality problems experienced during the credit crisis, evaluations were not a major contributing factor.  In fact, we are not aware of any reported cases of AVMs being blamed for the quality problems experienced during the credit crisis.

Appraisals as a Source of Market Analysis

Strangely, the CRN comments suggested that reviewing individual appraisals is an important source of market trend analysis for investors during overheated markets.  We find this highly improbable.  The typical single-family appraisal may contain microanalysis of neighborhoods or small markets that lenders may find informative, but most Investors already access market and economic trend data via other sources, including their own or 3rd party economic analyses and risk management tools.

Existing Quality Control Infrastructure for Appraisals

The CRN letter makes the case that appraisals benefit from an extensive regulatory framework and quality control infrastructure surrounding their use, making them inherently safer for the industry to rely upon.  We note that much of the same quality control infrastructure and practices were in place before the last crisis.  Much of that appraisal quality control depends on the same people and practices – e.g., “desk appraisals” performed by other appraisers – making them subject to similar risk factors.  In other words, appraisals are not a guarantee against risk.  They are simply one tool in the toolbox – an effective and comparatively expensive tool – but they should not be an exclusive tool when evaluations can be effectively employed in lower-risk scenarios. .

Application of Evaluations

We believe in using the right tool for the job, and we believe that there is a place for evaluations in prudent lending practices. Relying on additional risk measurements, rather than just focusing on a one size fits all de minimis level can provide a formula for better risk management.  For example: A $350,000 transaction at a 40% LTV for a pay stub borrower has less need for an appraisal; an evaluation might be able to suffice.  Better to allocate that valuable appraisal resource to a $225,000 transaction at 90% LTV.  Raising the de minimis, while providing additional guidance for other measures, provides lenders and investors more flexibility to make smarter risk management decisions, and it releases valuable appraisal resources to be used where they can have the most benefit.

Now that the FFIEC has recently closed its commentary period regarding the proposed de minimis lending threshold of $500,000, we expect to receive final communication from the FFIEC during 2016.
We anticipate that lenders will adapt to the new regulations incrementally, with quality controls designed for the new thresholds, not discarded with the bathwater.

Lee Kennedy & Mike Coyne,

AVMetrics, LLC.