In March, I had the pleasure to join Attorney Peter Olson to talk about family law, divorces and home appraisals. We share insights and learning from our careers on family law and home appraisals during divorces.
If you’re buying, selling, divorcing, filing bankruptcy, fighting your property tax bill, etc…it’s super important to value your real estate correctly. The monies at issue are way too important to just ‘trust Zillow’. You need an expert, real estate appraiser and this month that’s what we have…a discussion with John Tsiaousis, Chicagoland Appraisals.
Peter: Hello! Welcome to 3rd Thursday, Lunch & A Divorce Lawyer. I’m attorney Peter Olsen, Chicago Family Law Group. Thank you for joining us again. This month we have John Tsiaousis. John is an appraiser with ChicagoLand Appraisals. Thanks for jumping on here John.
John: Thank you for having me, I appreciate the time, I’m looking forward to getting into this a little bit.
Peter: So, tell us a little bit more just about your credentials, background, what you’re really doing, quoting your professional world right now?
John: Basically, to make it a little bit simple, I do home appraisals and most people know appraisers in connection with mortgages, whether it’s for purchase or refinance. In my practice here, we specialize in the non-lending side of the appraisal hemisphere. We do appraisals for private sales, landlord-tenants looking to do a private sale without exposing it to the market, siblings or relatives type of private sales, and things among those lines. We also do appraisals for probates where those appraisals are used to help the administration in division and distribution of the decedents, real estates. We do divorce appraisals, then various types of appraisals for income tax purposes such as estate tax appraisals, gift packs appraisals, charitable and contribution appraisals. There are a lot of other products that we can do and the last will be property tax appeals which have been big over the last several years.
Peter: I’m buying a home with bank X as my lender, you’re never doing that type of appraisal? Maybe not as much as the average appraiser?
John: Yes, that would be correct, I wouldn’t say “never” but it’s between that and we’ll do those. We have a few selected lenders that we enjoy working with and we do it for those but the bulk of the work that we do is not related to mortgages.
Peter: That’s surprising. So, my stereotype on the street is just like, how can you be an appraiser, not to do at least some of that. That is just a totally random thought on my end.
John: Listen, I used to have that same thought, “how can you be an appraiser and not do appraisals with the mortgages.” It was once I discovered it. I was like this is what I prefer to be doing because when you do work on the private side, you’re able to communicate more with the end-customer, oftentimes a homeowner versus on the mortgage side, due to the bureaucracy of the appraisal process, you can only communicate with them to a certain degree. Now you will take that whole process out, I can fully communicate with you in terms of value, we can have an exchange of back and forth more which is what people want. They want to be able to express whatever it is that they want to express, whether it’s things about the house, things about the market, or whatever comes to mind. There’s more of an opportunity to do that there and from my experience, that’s a better dynamic versus the mortgage side.
Perter: Yes, that’s really interesting to me. How long have you been in the business?
John: Well, I’ve been in the business for a while, over 20 years since 1999 so 22 years now or 23 years.
Peter: How do you get into real estate appraising, were you like a realtor or something? I don’t know your full background, like is it something like I became an appraisal, what’s the cliff notes version, I got into appraising this way?
John: Traditionally, the way somebody becomes an appraiser is through a family member. In my experience, I was dumb luck. I was in a job that I didn’t like and I knew was not going to get anywhere. I was looking for other things and then somebody told me, there was real estate, why don’t you try to become an appraiser. I know a guy, I’ll introduce you. It is a history from there. Immediately, I was interested, doing home appraisals essentially evolved from doing home appraisals. I invested in real estate, I’ve done property management, I’ve done some stuff as receivership. So, I have done quite a few things in the real estate arena, that all started from home appraisals, which essentially has always been our foundation.
Peter: What kind of team do you have at your business?
John: It’s myself, we have an assistant handling various administrative-type things and then I have two additional appraisers that we do, we all work together. Most appraisal shops are small shops, there’s not a whole ton of them that are. Real estate companies tend to be larger and have big numbers, but generally, home appraisal companies are small shops.
Peter: What does an appraisal look like? Here’s what I think I’m really asking, what do you do when I hire you to do an appraisal for me. Use my example, my divorce case. What do you do next? I mean what are you functionally doing when you’re hired to do an appraisal for my divorcing couple in Park Ridge or something?
John: Well, with divorce, the process is all the same. I feel like in a case like a divorce, you have to be a little more sensitive to the situation because both parties have a lot at stake and both parties want to convey specific information that they want the appraiser to know but the process is the same. We’ll schedule with whoever is going to be providing access, oftentimes as one party, in some scenarios both parties want to be there. We try to navigate that process respectfully. We don’t want to offend anybody. We don’t we want to rock the boat hardly ever in those situations but the process is the same where we go to the house, we will do a visual observation of the home, we’ll measure it, we’ll walk through all the rooms, get a sense of the condition of the floors, the kitchens, the baths, and the features and amenities of the home. That’s the easy part of that whole process.
The real work begins back at the computer where we analyze the trends of the market, inventory levels, are we oversupplied or undersupplied, and eventually we get to the comparison of our property versus others’ for the area. Basically, once that part, we know we delivered, the appraisals are often 20 something pages much of that is pictures and other exhibits, about five pages specifically for everything, for all the analysis that went into it.
Now the benefit of the private sales touched down a little bit earlier is that once the appraisal is done, typically everybody has an opportunity to ask us some questions if they have questions. We let everybody know, if you have some questions, let us know. We’ll schedule a call of about 10- 15 minutes and hash those out. That’s basically what that looks like from start to finish.
Peter: That’s good to know. So, you spoke about doing some of the private sales stuff. I think you listed probate, divorce, income tax, and property tax. What are your top couple in those areas that you’re doing your most volume in or you would say you’re doing your biggest volume in?
John: The top two are private sales number-1 and then number-2 would be divorce. We do quite a bit of both.
Peter: What’s the meaning of private sale, is that sort of basically just a cash transaction rather than where a lender is not looking at something, or what’s that picture?
John: When I say a “private sale”, I typically mean there’s a sale of a property that’s not exposed to the open market through a realtor. You see that in situations where a parent has passed on and now there’s this property and the children are deciding what they’re gonna do. Maybe one decides they want to buy the property or they know a neighbor that wants to buy their property. So, in these situations where they’re handling the sale directly and they’re not going to be using a realtor to essentially save on some of that cost, in those situations they’ll hire an appraiser.
Another scenario is, we’ve seen quite a bit of this over the last few years, where a tenant is occupying a property, whether it’s a condo, two-flats, or a single-family home. The owner has been renting for some years, they decided they want to sell, they go to that tenant and inform the tenant that they want to sell and the tenant expresses interest, and then they will order an appraisal to help determine an accurate or fair selling price. We see that a lot quite a bit in those situations.
So, when I say, private sale, that’s what I mean it’s not exposed to the whole market. The market as a whole, it’s not marketed through a realtor. They’re trying to determine a “fair price” and oftentimes they end up deciding and we’ll hire an appraiser and that will be a starting point for them.
In that scenario, they will be thinking about that appraisal and they would not be able to go take it, a lot of say, Hey, Mr. Lender I have an appraisal that we did. The Lender eventually will have to go do their own second appraisal if they’re going to try to obtain a mortgage.
Peter: One thing you didn’t mention and I don’t want to question how up-to-date or not your LinkedIn profile is, but you have something called a bankruptcy appraisal on your LinkedIn profile, is that something you’re doing?
John: Yes, we are. We haven’t seen a whole ton of that in the last couple of years. I imagine we will start seeing that here maybe in a year or two.
Peter: What piece of the process are you doing? I’m not any bankruptcy expert, what does that look like on your end when it was a little bit more prevalent? How far along is the process? Who are you providing this, the bankruptcy trustee or the debtor? Who’s your customer?
John: Typically, the owner of the home. Unless the trustee specifically is going to order that, typically they can get their own appraisal. It’s usually relied on for that purpose, but usually the folks that we get are the actual homeowners. The lenders typically will have appraisers that they use in a rotation, they’ll use them then whomever the trustee if he’s or she’s going to order the appraisals. I’m sure they know the folks that they have used as well.
Peter: It’s interesting, a couple of months ago in this same format, I was actually interviewing a bankruptcy attorney and he said his business was way down and the reasons are because you had a lot of these moratoriums and stuff where people were protected a little bit on debts. I think the state of Illinois had like the landlord-tenant thing where you couldn’t get evicted and then a lot of the collection court apparatus. I know sometimes we’ll outsource some judgments of ours when an attorney who does that kind of work and they were shut down for a good while too. Therefore, I think people weren’t filing bankruptcy at near the level. I think that may be changing too. I know the eviction moratorium is now done and I think the other one is too because I know we’ve been pursuing a couple of our judgments frankly for collection purposes, not totally random but as an aside. Maybe that business will pick up sometimes.
John: Yes, I read earlier today from our local MLS that mortgage forbearances are ending within the next few months.
Peter: Yes, the mortgage forbearance too, I mean seems like the only things, what would you call, “pauses” on some of those financial issues. The student loans got pushed out again but I think almost all of the other ones have been expiring or have expired at this point?
John: The article said that middle of the year, so let’s say June that the land we’ll start to see the results of beyond pause, where you on pause that and see what happens and the indication was that you’re going to have properties that short sale foreclosure, and those types of things and also people will eventually be going into bankruptcy. So, those numbers will start to increase this year versus since the pandemic started in March 2020.
Peter: If we’re talking about like two different appraisals, it could be a divorce context I’m dealing with. What really moves the needle there? I’m some guy’s attorney in a divorce and an appraisal gets ordered and now whatever the wife’s attorney has an appraiser do something, who knows where that goes? Maybe just everybody gets an appraisal and we split the difference. Sometimes you get into a contested litigated setting. Why do two different appraisers who are both, what moves the needle between appraisals done on the same property? Are there any kinds of general things? It is a deep dive.
John: It’s a common question, I just had the question before we got to this meeting. It can happen at the end of the day. The first person foremost is, do you know your market? How well does each person know the market? Are you going through that process in a similar way? Are you identifying the same market segment or are you identifying a different market segment? That’s the first and foremost.
That’s where it goes sideways, go sideways right there. Then at the end of the day, it’s an educated opinion but still there’s some opinion then there at the end of the day. So, there is some subjectivity there at the end of the day and this isn’t the best answer, and I never had a good answer for this question, but that’s just how it works.
You can have two different appraisers and you can have two different values. Generally speaking, if they’re fairly close then it should be, but if the values are way off, there’s something that was not considered or shouldn’t have been considered, and that’s typically what from what I hear is that “Okay now you have to get a third appraiser and then see what that looks like and it can be… I don’t know how you guys handle that at the end of the day, I don’t know if you split the baby or lean towards two that are the closest and work it from there, but that’s a long-winded answer. There is some subjectivity at the end of the day.
Peter: Knock on the wood, I feel like I haven’t really had that many contested values. You hire a competent appraiser, it’s been a year or two since I’ve had a really contested situation, but you guys have a significant, one of the big professional associations. I feel like we usually say we’re going to pick an appraiser from this professional association having this qualification and that’s what we’re going to do. I remember having an appraiser as an expert witness on a couple of cases and it was interesting how those played out…
John: Yes, and a lot of it like, you can have two different appraisals. You see one appraisal and you see the other and the one is clearly like, there’s more detail, the logic and rationale, it makes sense, it’s consistent with what people generally know of the market. Then you can have one that’s very boilerplate if you will, not enough detail in there. So, when you have those disparities, that lends itself not having to go, not having to contest because you can see that from time to time. Sometimes these things happen.
Peter: The one I’m thinking about, it was like you said, like one was totally boilerplate. I remember this other attorney in this case. It was a partition lawsuit as opposed to a divorce. It was like an adult kid and a parent fighting over this value of the property that they owned together. I remember the appraiser the other side used was totally in a different market than where the property was located. I think the property was out in Hoffman Estates or something and they had some appraiser from Central Illinois to do the appraiser. The attorney was local, was out in the caliber somewhere so she didn’t have somebody. Her appraiser was a little bit inferior in that particular situation.
John: That has been one thing that has been a hot topic if you will. Not recently but maybe a few years back with the term called geographical competency. So, you have to know the market that you’re appraising. Now you can live in Central Illinois and do appraisals of Chicago, but if you know the Chicago market. There’s nothing wrong with that. So, just because it’s a bit dry, let’s say if you do appraisals on a regular basis in Chicago then there’s no issue there. But if I don’t know Central Illinois, if I was to try to go down there and try to do an appraisal, I would probably have some questions. But, I stay in my market and I know I don’t do that. I appraise where I know and where I don’t know, leave it to those that do so. That was one of the things. So maybe, in that case, they weren’t as familiar with the market as the other appraisers.
Peter: My only other recent appraisal issue, I think, was coming out of divorce out and I think they had a home in Crystal Lake. This was just a typical refi situation, but it still is amazing when some appraisal came and I remember it being a good 75 to a 100,000, and like a $400,000 property under, what value needed to be there for refinance but then somebody else does an appraisal once a few weeks later like, “okay we’re fine.” Somebody redid their appraisal. I think it was a bit of a unique subdivision that was on sort of an island or something. I don’t remember, but it’s like just one of those things that somebody who’s not an expert and it’s a bit of a head-scratcher, how you get that much movement from appraisal-1 to appraisal-2 or something, because it was something that potentially could have been a landmine on our case. It wasn’t really a contentious case, it was the client who needed to do a refinance and that property needed to be appraised to a certain level.
John: It’s essentially those nuances that if you’re not familiar with that, you don’t know. Like in Chicago, I’ll take the city Chicago, let’s say North Avenue and Western and you can go half a mile in any direction and values are vastly different. You can use general guidelines typically for appraisals. Staying within a mile is one that people are most familiar with, but if you were to do that there, you can skew that value down or up. If I’m on the upper end and I pick a sale from a mile in the opposite direction then I could skew the value down or conversely which hardly anybody ever complains about. If I’m on the other side and I pick one on the upper end of the market, then I skew the value up. Nobody ever really complains about that one if it’s too high.
Peter: What’s the latest in the real estate appraisal world, any big changes or hot button type issues you deal with within your vocational life area of work?
John: The biggest one is much like the rest of the world, appraisals went remote immediately when the pandemic first came through. Before that, we would go to the property and do everything firsthand. All the major lenders and GSCs made modifications or allowances for us to do the remote. Now we’re going to be relying on third-party’s information as a part of our data collection process. That has happened. It’s the same process, we just eliminated the visit to the home. It’s usually best to see the property in person when you can. That was one that happened immediately. I think most appraisers are back to seeing properties firsthand but that’s still to some degree is going to be normal, but it’s going to be more normal now than it was previously. That’s something that we offer as well as part of our service as well, we do it remotely.
A lot of that is dependent on information that we can find online already, maybe through a prior listing of the property in recent years versus maybe having a property owner provide us information. So not every property qualifies for that.
Then the other one, the most recent issue that appraisers have been dealing with is racial bias in their work. It came up in recent years and there’s been a lot of news sources, a lot of articles, a lot of stories that are coming up where one appraiser came in and the value is low, and another appraiser comes and value was more in line with what the homeowner thought it would be or wanted it to be. Then that has raised a lot of questions about racial discrimination in the appraisal process. Now everything is going to focus on that and how that is going to be addressed.
Peter: I’m not a news junkie by any means, but I remember seeing some on the NBC Nightly News in the last few months.
John: Yes. This is a sensitive subject and I don’t know how – maybe this is going to sound insensitive. I’m not sure how you determine that by just those two factors alone. I think that you have to be able to see both appraisals fully side by side to understand what’s going on here. Is it some of the issues that we’re talking about earlier, maybe the appraiser is not familiar with the market or it is really discrimination. I don’t know what it is but it’s a difficult odyssey, it’s difficult for those who feel that those are the victims of that.
Peter: Without going down that road too far, I would like to wrap pretty quick, are you naturally interacting with a buyer? Well I mean I guess you are in your private sales situation, but what about the traditional. I’m getting a mortgage at Bank of America, Chase Bank or something, that appraiser is not touching me at all. Are they prospective buyers?
John: As a buyer, No. As a buyer, probably not, most likely no.
Peter: But on the seller side, I guess the theory would be, the seller or whatever the property, when are they touching…
John: They’re in contact with the seller, most likely to provide access.
Peter: That seems like what the allegations are. Just totally, I’m not an expert at all. I saw one news story but just talking about it.
John: I’ll leave it off here. Essentially, we touched on this earlier. I think it’s the amount of communication that is a contributing factor. I feel like it’s been an inferior way to communicate with an end-person because there’s a little bit of bureaucracy. Let’s say you get a loan from lender A. Lender A hires a broker of an Appraisal Management Company. The Appraisal Management Company hires me. So, now between you and me, there are two additional layers. Now you’re not my client. Whoever orders the appraisal in this case, would be the broker and they’re the clients. I have a confidentiality obligation to them. I can only talk to you as a homeowner. You can tell me about some improvements and things like that but once the appraisal was done, we can’t get into a whole lot of conversation about the value and things along those lines which is what you’re going to be concerned about at the end of day.
So, I feel like there needs to be some kind of change where the communication is open because I’m fortunate or when I’m done with it. Let’s say you hired me directly for an appraisal you say, “John I have some questions, why is your appraisal low? That’s the issue as the appraisal was low. Okay, and then we can have a conversation and you can explain to me why you think it’s low and then I can explain to you what we did and what I find in my scenario oftentimes is we come to an understanding. There are situations when we’ve had these conversations, we still disagree and that’s going to happen but typically when you had the opportunity to walk through that, there’s usually kind of an understanding of how I arrived to and what I arrived at and oftentimes there is information that you as the homeowner weren’t necessarily aware of and can see my point of view. So yes, that’s kind of what that looks like.
Peter: John, just wrapping. I don’t want to list all your services again, a private sale appraisal, probate, divorce, etc. Where does somebody find you to tee you up for your products and services?
John: The fastest way to find us and get a response is through our website and it iswww.chicagolandappraisals.com. There’s a button there, you press to get a quote. You follow that link. There are a few questions that you’re going to have to answer and then we typically respond fairly fast, usually within the same day you’ll get a response. If there’s something more specific, that you have some questions on, you can give us a call at 773-800-0269, 773-800-0269 but otherwise our website is www.chicagolandappraisals.com.
Peter: Got it. I like your little chat video that starts talking right away.
John: The biggest question that we get is, how much is an appraisal? Well, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, so that’s why we have those questions that help us get there faster.
Peter: Well John, super thankful for you jumping on here. If I have anything coming up in any of my divorce cases or something, I think you’re the only appraiser, I call it my Business Partner Touch Plan. So, you’re the first email or call for me. Thank you for jumping on here again.
John: Peter, thank you so much. I appreciate the time and thank you for always keeping me in mind first. I always appreciate that and talk to you soon.