Appraisal Fraud in the Spotlight, Again

A group of appraisers in Idaho filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday against Countrywide Financial Corp. – Now, Bank of America Corp. (BAC), after its recent acquisition – claiming the company used “strong-arming tactics to intimidate appraisers to generate reports in line with Countrywide’s business objectives.” In wake of the Home Valuation Code of Conduct — a new set of regulations meant to “clean-up” appraisal fraud, and set to go into effect on January 1, 2009 — this suit turned attention, once again, to the heated issue of appraisals. The suit alleged Countrywide used improper appraisal techniques that benefited the lender and punished those who did not participate by blacklisting individuals and companies; in turn, causing “substantial damage to thousands of appraisers,” in addition to distorting real estate prices. “The integrity of real estate appraisals is more important than ever and time and time again Countrywide is showing its customers and partners that it only cares about profits and market control,” said Steve Berman, managing partner at Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, the firm representing the appraisers.  “The bottom line is our nation’s at a breaking point where we can’t take anymore corporate dishonesty in the home market…” According to Berman, if appraisers don’t “play ball” with Countrywide by producing a report affirming the appraisel value Countrwide expects, they’re blacklisted.  The suit alleged, as of Aug. 28, 2008, more than 2,000 appraisers appeared on “the list.” The claim stated that any appraisal submitted to Countrywide from a blacklisted appraiser was automatically sent to LandSafe, who can render an appraisal “unusable” if it doesn’t fall within Countrywide’s guidelines. The claim called LandSafe a “captive puppet” of Countrywide, enabling their unethical business practices. And according to the complaint, Countrywide has been using the blacklist practice for more than four years. The complaint states the plaintiff, Capitol West Appraisers, refused to succumb to Countrywide’s alleged pressure — as a result, the company was placed on the list. The issue of appraisal fraud came to the forefront in November 2007 by way of a lawsuit involving Washington Mutual Inc. and First American subsidiary, eAppraiselIT, one of the nation’s largest real estate appraisal management companies. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo sued First American and its subsidiary for allegedly colluding with Washington Mutual Inc. to inflate real estate appraisals. The lawsuit, filed in the Supreme Court of New York, New York, alleged that First American and EA violated appraiser independence laws. Cuomo struck a deal that resulted in a Home Valuation Code of Conduct — effective January 1, 2008 — that establishes requirements governing appraisal selection, solicitation, compensation, conflicts of interest and corporate independence.

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