Hard as it may be to believe the life of a real estate appraiser is not all wine, women and song. Appraisers are, for the most part, a serious solitary bunch.
When I was actively appraising, a group of colleagues from Rochester would occasionally attend the metro area meeting of the Appraisal Institute. Believe me when I say, a meeting of the Embalmers Association would by comparison be, a riotous, drunken bacchanalia.
In the late 80’s we were in the midst of yet another bank meltdown and appraisers were tasked with valuing properties in the midst of bank repossession. Most often these homes were – hopefully – vacant.
During one of my early appraisal courses I had a roommate from Florida who worked with his Dad valuing and then selling bank owned properties in Miami. He related any number of stories wherein disgruntled homeowners – continuing to squat in the property – were hiding in closets or dark basements when he came through. In one particular case the owner popping out of a closet – loaded shotgun in hand. Granted he was in Florida and this is Minnesota – but the stories stuck in my head.
And as you’ll see, fueled by baseless subconscious fear, the unchecked human mind can create any number of vivid scenarios.
Here’s Looking at You Kid
It’s a beautiful sunny-but-chilly late-fall morning as I pull into the desolate dirt driveway that leads to a wooded home site somewhere south of Blooming Prairie, Minnesota.
I bring my platinum-gray four-door Mercury Cougar to a stop, leaving the engine running and the heater on. I open my hard-plastic briefcase and begin assembling the tools of the trade for entering and appraising yet another vacant home.
Clipboard, mechanical pencil and house keys at the ready and prepared – in my mind – to face Freddy or Jason or whoever lay in wait in the house, I look up to see my windshield covered with bees.
Not honeybees mind you (Not that it would have made a damn bit of difference – bees are bees.) – but those big ugly long-tail-hanging-down wasps. The kind you always see in the fall of the year. There must be a hundred of them on my windshield.
I’m no Stephen King novel hero so needless to say; this house will not get appraised on this day.
Fast forward a couple weeks, the temps have dropped and there’s a wisp of snow on the ground. I’m back in front of the Beehive, waiting and watching, motor running. Fifteen minutes zip by in a breath with no notice of any bees. I exit the safety of my platinum sedan and head for the house.
The subject property is a large cedar sided rambler with a two car attached garage. A rusty-around-the-edges white metal service door, positioned to the right of the overhead door, stands open by six inches. I push the door open the rest of the way with the toe of my size ten and a half, brown Florsheim loafer.
The garage floor is littered with dead wasp bodies, the kind that sting. I approach the house entrance and press my ear to the door, listening for the sound of live bees. Wasps don’t make much of a sound so it’s hard to know if I’m heading to a painful puffy death.
Heart pounding I set my hand on the cold brass knob and turn it, gently pushing the door into what appears to be the kitchen. No wasps, nowhere. Cool.
The inspection part of appraising a house requires a lot of head down concentration. The last time my house was appraised – circa 2012 – the guy used an iPad for everything. Back in the day we filled out a paper Fannie-Mae appraisal form and sketched the floor plan as we walked through the house. I can’t count the number of times, walking through vacant houses sans-furniture, where I ran head-first into the dining area chandelier.
I always started in the basement and the door was to my left. Here we go.
My mind flashes back to Florida and my Appraisal 101 roommate. Not to him specifically of course, that would be weird, but to his stories about repo-squatters hiding in basements and closets. My heart races, my breath comes in short staccato bursts as I descend to the darkness of the vacant beehive basement.
Thirteen wooden steps into the ever-increasing darkness my loafer catches on a stair tread and I lose my footing and regain it just as quickly. I am after-all an appraiser. Blindly I wave my hand back and forth in front of me, searching for the pull-cord from a ceiling light fixture. I find a string and pull: beautiful incandescent light. God bless Thomas Edison.
All good. No shotgun-wielding squatters. No bees that I can see.
I write down the bare minimum of needed information; forced air heat, central air, 150-watt electrical service, 40-gallon propane water heater and I’m back up the stairs in a flash. Only a fool would spend any more time than absolutely necessary in the basement of a vacant house.
Back on the well-lit main level I begin the process of sketching the floor plan in the kitchen dining area. Using quarter inch graph paper and my bionic eye I’m fairly accurate estimating room size for the sketch. I’ll verify it all later when I use a tape to measure the exterior.
I note the dining area vinyl flooring on the appraisal form and draw in the six-foot wide patio door that leads to a wooden deck at the back of the house. Mercifully I sidestep the chandelier without even looking up – I’m in the zone now.
In the kitchen I check the boxes on the Fannie-Mae form for dishwasher, disposal and range hood. I notice a couple of dead bees on the counter and one on the vinyl floor in front of the ‘frig. Great, I think to myself, I thought the bees were just in the garage.
I take a breath and continue checking boxes and making notes; Formica counters, basic cabinets, average construction.
Stopping at the patio door I look out to the backyard. The wind has picked up, even the branches on the big oaks are bending. The house creaks in complaint of the cold and wind and a shiver creases my spine.
I’m tempted to just get the hell out of there. I already know what’s at the other end of the house; three bedrooms and a bathroom. The only thing keeping me is appraiser ethics. I can’t report it on the form or the sketch unless I see it.
I come around a short L-shaped wall into the living room, a long hallway at my left. I begin sketching from the right, drawing in the entrance to the garage, a bow window in the living room, carpeted floor . . . the house creaks again and something imaginary crawls the back of my neck.
Oak woodwork, typical basic ranch casing, I sketch in the front door and the coat closet next to it. Could it be anything other than a closet? Nope. And I don’t need to check either.
Drawing in the final wall of the living room I look up from my clipboard and glance down the hall . . . and there he stands.
I have never in my life screamed in terror and I don’t now. Thankfully. But my entire body convulses backward. My mouth drops open to say something but no words come. A hundred thousand tiny needles poke my back and I realize I’m not breathing. A flip-flop churning in the pit of my stomach brings me to the realization that scaring the crap out of someone is a real possibility. It is definitely one of those fight or flight moments and I’m strongly in favor of flight.
I start a slow motion spin to my right trying to make my exit on the legs of a rubber chicken and watch as my nemesis does the same. In fact, I suddenly realize, he’s also wearing a blue suit and brown loafers. He is me and I am him; my reflection in a full-length mirror at the end of the hall.
And that dear reader, is how you scare the crap of your appraiser; let them do it themselves, they don’t need any help.