An applicant for a loan from my client was about to bid on a court-ordered sale of an assortment of foreclosed British Columbian land properties scattered all around the province. The foreclosing lender had been a victim of mortgage fraud, feebly assisted by a supposedly reputable Canadian appraisal firm.
The previous owner had manipulated the appraisers into conducting “hypothetical appraisals” with such instructions as “Do not talk to the local government”, “Assume that the properties are rezoned”, and “Assume that all geotechnical reports are satisfactory”. Much of the land was mountainous, and geotechnical reports are needed to forecast the likelihood of landslides. Steep, rocky mountains, heavy rain, and seismic activity are serious concerns in British Columbia, but I will tell you more interesting details later in this post.
The prior lender was a private Canadian lender who apparently did not actually read the previous appraisal reports. The Canadian appraisal profession has a Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice similar to the U.S.A., and there were many disclosures and disclaimers in the appraisal reports relating to the Extraordinary Assumptions and Hypothetical Conditions that the client, a purported real estate developer, forced the appraisal firm to use. When the hypothetical conditions were as outrageous as the ones used in these instances, though, the most appropriate action an appraiser can take is to refuse the assignment. Why have your name associated with mortgage fraud?
The very definition of “hypothetical” is assuming something untrue to be true. Hypothetical conditions have their place in sensitivity analyses and “what if” scenarios within a real estate organization, but they are completely inappropriate for appraisals submitted to lenders.
The fundamental problem is that few people know how to read appraisal reports, and many lenders look only at one number, the appraised value, not reading all of the assumptions and limiting conditions behind that estimate of value.
In this case, the appraisals were predicated on assumptions of rezoning, development approvals, favorable environmental and geotechnical reports, and the ability to build homes on a mountainous site. Yet, the appraisers obeyed the instructions not to talk to the local government. They did not even consult the on-line zoning map.
When I am hired to appraise “development land”, the local planning officials are the first ones I call. In the sphere of people appraisers need to talk to, I usually find the planning officials to be the most helpful and honest. The added benefit is if the development plan has been rejected or not even submitted, that shortens my appraisal assignment.
As for geologic issues, the previous owner had disingenuously hired a geologist to perform a geotechnical study on only the flattest parcel of the parcels that he was financing. The geotechnical report indicated the chance of a landslide as less than 1 in 500 years, but for only that flat parcel, but the owner tricked the lender into thinking that all the parcels pledged as collateral were safe from landslides. This led to unrealistic assumptions.
But wait! Many of the properties were situated at the southern end of Lake Harrison, a lake surrounded by mountains, the largest of which is Mount Breakenridge, 7858 feet in height, which is being monitored by geologists for its increasing unstable rock slope. When large parts of mountains fall into a lake, a “megatsunami” is triggered, flattening lakeside communities. In December 2007, for instance, Lake Chehalis, a much smaller lake a few miles west of Lake Harrison, had a 600-foot tall rock face of a mountain fall into the lake and trigger a tsunami that created a wave so high that trees up to 124 feet above the lake were flattened. Fortunately, there were no communities on Lake Chehalis, and no one was camping there in December.
Remnants of the disaster 11 years ago at Lake Chehalis
A graphic example of this phenomenon can be seen in Norway’s first disaster movie, “The Wave”, a fictional story of the exact same phenomenon and the loss of life it can create. Norway did lose a whole community to a megatsunami in a fjord back in 1934.
"The Wave", a recent Norwegian film
Nevertheless, the client was just offering a one-year bridge loan, and these types of geologic events are seldom and do not appear to be affecting real estate markets, which is all that an appraiser is supposed to measure, so this geologic phenomenon did not go into the report. After all, I live in southern California, where the “Big One”, the most powerful earthquake that will occur in California history, is predicted by scientists to occur in the next few decades, but this has not deterred the southern California real estate market from reaching all-time high prices in many places.