The licenses of the founders and principals of one of NYC’s largest real estate appraisal companies MMJ (including Riverside resident and the owner of a new brokerage firm here in Greenwich, Jeffrey Jackson), have been revoked as the result of an administrative judge’s finding of fraud.
At the market’s peak, the appraisal firm Mitchell, Maxwell & Jackson was one of the most dominant in New York City. And one supervising appraiser, Marianne Mueller, stood out as MMJ’s most successful employee, according to the heads of the firm.
Then the recession hit, and relations between Mueller and MMJ soured, too.
The case, which The Real Deal first reported online, resulted in an administrative court judge ruling to pull the licenses of MMJ’s founders — Steven Knobel and Jeffrey Jackson — effective Feb. 1. But that harsh measure has been put on hold pending the founders’ appeal. [Now upheld ]
The bone of contention in that case: Mueller’s electronic signature. She accused MMJ of signing her name to 14 appraisals that she insists she never saw. MMJ eventually fired Mueller, who had climbed to executive vice president, and she filed a complaint with the New York Department of State, which regulates appraisal firms.
At a Dec. 27 administrative law hearing, a judge ruled in her favor, determining that Knobel and Jackson knew that their other employees were affixing Mueller’s electronic signature to the appraisals, all conducted in 2009. That’s when he ruled to pull Knobel and Jackson’s licenses — an action that sources say is virtually unheard of.
MMJ appealed the judge’s order. In January, a senior DOS official granted a stay to the firm, noting that the judge mistakenly used a test applicable to only brokers. (Brokerage firms are responsible for the conduct of their employees; appraisers, though, are not.)
Knobel and Jackson deny any wrongdoing. “[Mueller] tells different sets of stories, convincingly,” said Knobel in a sit-down interview with TRD last month. “But so did the people in the witch trials in Salem. And people got burned for it.”
Knobel and Jackson launched MMJ in 1991 and, by all accounts, saw their firm soar. “Every time I would do a closing, they seemed to be the appraisers,” said real estate attorney Adam Leitman Bailey.
By 2008, MMJ was one of Manhattan’s eminent appraisal firms.
“They went from a handful of appraisers to near 100 people,” said Jonathan Miller, who runs real estate analytics company Miller Samuel, which competes with MMJ.
Only two years later, though, MMJ’s client list, once about 3,000 strong, had dwindled to about 50, Knobel said. And many of the firm’s appraisers, most of whom weren’t salaried, walked out the door, too, when the business dwindled.
Many blame the housing crash on appraisal firms, contending they helped inflate real estate prices through their cozy relationship with mortgage brokers.
MMJ was never accused specifically of malfeasance, but industry sources told TRD that the firm relied heavily on mortgage broker clients and filled out appraisal forms with breakneck speed.
“They had people doing 40 appraisals a week,” said a fellow appraiser, who asked not to be named. That pace, the source said, was simply unrealistic; the appraisal form for a Fannie Mae home, for example, includes more than 800 questions.
Knobel acknowledged that a handful of appraisers might have completed dozens of forms — but only rarely. “And say you do [unit] 3B [in a particular building] and you get an order for 4B — how many of those fields do you have to redo?”
Miller did not point specifically to MMJ, but generally described his high-volume competitors during the boom years as “deal enablers.”
“They would mushroom in size and work mostly for mortgage brokers,” he said.
The real estate downturn, though, isn’t the only reason why appraisers hit the skids. It was a regulation that went into effect in 2009.
As TRD and others have reported, the Home Valuation Code of Conduct — called “havoc” by appraisers — strongly encourages the use of third parties called appraisal management companies, who dole out appraisal assignments instead of brokers and bankers. The intent of the regulation was to create a firewall between the lender and the appraiser, preventing mortgage brokers from dictating, or trying to dictate, appraisal values.
“[The change] destroyed the mortgage broker world and the traditional appraisal world,” one source said.
Knobel agrees: “The appraisal business is dead, and I will be the first to put a tombstone on it.”
Regardless of the outcome, there’s one thing perhaps all parties can agree on: The future is not very bright for appraisers.
Appraisals in New York now net between $600 and $700 each, and the appraiser gets a third to a half of that sum, according to a prominent Manhattan appraiser who asked not to be named. “What are you getting for that price?” he asked.
Hardly anything, is what one industry expert thinks.
“Meeting a minimal standard is all that matters,” said Larry Sicular, founder of Sicular & Associates, a Manhattan-based brokerage and appraisal firm.