by Arlene Baxter

Today our Berkeley Association of Realtors auditorium was packed to capacity with Realtors wanting to get the latest information on the status of loan availability and appraisal conditions in this changing market. Our speakers, one representative each from the mortgage and appraisal industries, confirmed what we’d been hearing anecdotally from our colleagues. Loans were super abundant a year ago, with everyone knowing someone moonlighting as a loan broker who could get you “such a deal!” Last summer came the implosion of sub-prime lending and the virtual disappearance of jumbo loan products, those loans larger than $417K. Fast forward to our current state. The pendulum has swung so far that now folks with a fully documented loan application may have great difficulty getting financing if they have less than 20% down, gorgeous credit scores, and substantial assets. Buyers who can stay within the limit of a $417K loan can still get very attractive rates, today at the 5.5% level. But buyers who need to borrow amounts up to the new “super-conforming” limit of $729,750 need to be prepared for much stiffer requirements (see FHA and Freddie Mac Daddy from March 6th, below).

One of the elements of loan approval that has been mostly in the background up until now is the appraisal process. In our area we have for more than a decade been able to assume that homes would appraise for their contract value, except in the rarest of circumstances. If a property had multiple offers, as so many did, that was a strong argument in determining that market forces were setting value, and that we were in an area of increasing values. Lenders allowed appraisers to use closed sales back as far as six months, and there was reasonable flexibility to use properties that shared a similar characteristic to the subject property, even if they weren’t in the same neighborhood.

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The job of the appraiser has changed dramatically over the past few months. Marian Huntoon, the owner of Real Valuation in Berkeley, spoke to our Association today about the intensity of scrutiny that appraisers must now face. Lenders want to see properties used as comparables that sold within three months or less, and they insist on having both an active and a pending sale in the same neighborhood. Appraisers are now routinely making significant adjustments to value in order to use “comparable” properties that are really not very comparable at all. Marian estimated that it takes appraisers anywhere from twice as long to four times as long as a year ago to complete an appraisal report that is acceptable to the lender. Appraisal reports are now routinely sent back to appraisers with the request that additional adjustments be made to reflect declining market conditions. That is really a loaded phrase. Lenders are now reviewing market conditions with an extremely broad brush, defining the direction of the market by county, not by city, nor by neighborhood. Those of us who are actively representing clients in this area know that we are still seeing multiple offers on many properties in the most desirable neighborhoods. We are back to seeing pre-emptive offers both in the modest and in the most expensive price ranges. So to have both Alameda and Contra Costa Counties defined as a whole as “declining market conditions” makes us all a bit crazy. Explain that to my buyer who lost out in fairly modest competition of only four offers. He still didn’t get the house he loved! And then there was the James house, receiving 17 offers last week after only one Sunday open house (see our March 14th entry below).

But it is also true that there are properties sitting for a few weeks before they sell, as opposed to selling according to a pre-established seven or ten-day schedule. And then, even in some of our most desirable neighborhoods, there are the short sales, trust sales and foreclosures. Those are topics for another day!

Tip for Home Sellers: Review carefully with your listing agent what the recent sales have been, closest to your home both in location and style. Try to step back and look at the data the way both buyers and appraisers will now be forced to look: at currently active homes, those recently pending, and the sales back only a very few months. Even if some buyers might be willing to offer a very high price, unless they have unusually high cash reserves to make up the difference, most buyers will need to have your home appraise very close to their offer, in order for the contract to close. Sellers should come to expect to see both financing and appraisal contingencies in the majority of offers, rather than assuming that buyers will waive those contingencies in order to have their offer accepted. The goal is not receiving and accepting a very high offer. The goal is, and really always has been, to close the escrow, and at an acceptable price.