I want to talk to you today about something most of us appraisers do on a daily basis – taking comparable photos.
Now, I don’t want to get into the whole “Are comps a waste of time? Do they actually serve any purpose?” debate. That’s gone on long enough and it isn’t going to stop any time soon. Instead, I want to try and clear up what is and isn’t actually required from your FHA comps; specifically, we’re going to be looking at the tricky question of taking comparable pictures when people are present.
So, let’s say you’re an appraiser who adheres to FHA rules, meaning you have to take a picture of each comparable at the time of the inspection (heaven forbid we have a photo of that comp that’s two weeks old, because of course everything will be completely different by now… okay, sorry, I’ll stick to the topic). You pull up outside the property and see that there are people outside; let’s say there are kids playing there in the front yard. What do you do?
Some of you will say, “I take the photo. That’s my job!” I get that, but look at it from another perspective. You’re a mom or dad inside the house, watching your kids play out in the yard. Suddenly a stranger pulls up in their car, winds the window down, takes out their camera or smartphone and appears to take a photo of your children. Are you trying to tell me that if you were that parent, you wouldn’t be at least a little bit freaked out?
Of course you would and you’d be completely justified in reacting that way. That’s why other appraisers and I have a standing rule – we’re not taking the photo if there are kids in it. There are simply too many implications and too many possibilities; basically, there are too many things that could go wrong. We live in a scary world, with a lot of bad people in it and I don’t want to put myself in any situation where my professionalism, my character or my standing in the community are called into question. I also don’t want to put myself in any danger, which – if parents think I pose a threat to their kids – I might well be doing.
As a business, we’ve simply decided that if there are any people at all in the picture – whether they’re under or over 18 years old – then we’re not taking a photo of the property. We just move along, no questions asked.
“But Dustin,” I hear you say, “Doesn’t the FHA require us to take photos of comps?” Well, my friend, I’m glad you asked. I broke out my trusty copy of the 4000.1 handbook and checked the section on minimum photograph requirements. There are a few rules there, but I want to draw your attention to this one: “MLS photographs are acceptable to exhibit comparable condition at the time of the sale. However, appraisers must include their own photographs as well to document compliance.”
That second line is pretty ambiguous, I’ve got to say and leaves the whole issue open to interpretation. Without clear guidelines, I’d say that you should use good old-fashioned common sense. If you don’t want to take a photo because people are in front of the property, I’d advise driving far enough away so that safety is no longer an issue and getting the photo from there. Other appraisers simply take a photo of the street sign, to prove they were at that location when they said they were.
The official line is that you need your own comp photos, in addition to the MLS ones. How do you actually put that into practice? That’s something you’ll have to decide for your own business, just like I have. Whatever you do, however, make sure you’re forthcoming about your approach and that you document it clearly.
For more information on this subject, please download and listen to The Appraiser Coach Podcast Episode 100 – Taking Comp Photos When People Are Present