USMI Comment Letter on FHFA RFI on Appraisal-Related Policies

February 26, 2021

The Honorable Mark A. Calabria
Director Federal Housing Finance Agency
400 7th Street SW Washington, DC 20019

Dear Director Calabria:

On behalf of U.S. Mortgage Insurers (USMI) and our member companies, we appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback on the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s (FHFA) initiatives to modernize appraisal processes and to the specific questions presented in the Request for Information (RFI) on Appraisal-Related Policies, Practices, and Processes. As a general matter, the private mortgage insurance (MI) industry understands and agrees with the FHFA that there are opportunities to modernize appraisal processes and to improve the quality of residential property valuation practices. There have been significant advancements in technology, data aggregation, and analytics throughout the mortgage finance industry that have positively impacted many professions and processes. Collateral risk assessment and real estate valuation can benefit from these same technological advancements if done appropriately. As Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, collectively the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), seek to modernize their appraisal policies and collateral valuation technologies, USMI strongly believes that the FHFA should implement rules designed to ensure that innovations around the appraisal process are done when there is demonstrable benefit to the broader housing finance system, including greater transparency, efficiency, accuracy of property valuations, and lower costs for borrowers and market participants. While we provide specific comments, observations, and recommendations to many of the issues raised and questions posed in the RFI in our responses in Appendix A, our initial comments below focus primarily on the increased use of appraisal waivers through 2020, as well as specific observations related to the above 80 percent loan-to-value (LTV) segment of the market and recommendations to address areas of increased risks.

Balancing Innovation & Prudent Mortgage Lending

USMI and our member companies recognize that there is an opportunity through appraisal modernization to address many of the existing challenges within the appraisal process, including those that stem from the shortage of qualified appraisers in the market and the unique challenges in rural markets of getting appraisers and having comparable properties for valuations. Given the standardization role that the GSEs play within the marketplace, as well as their dominant market presence, there is an opportunity for industry stakeholders and the GSEs to come together to promote appropriate solutions that drive efficiencies and lead to more accurate valuations in a way that appropriately balances risk and operational flexibility.

At the same time, USMI members continue to appreciate the role of appraisers in the mortgage underwriting process, especially since automated or model-based solutions may not be appropriate for certain properties and transactions. Importantly, for homebuyers, an appraiser’s inspection report serves to affirm, when appropriate, the reasonableness of home price discovery via an arms-length negotiation.

USMI members also acknowledge that appraisal technology has the potential to improve the efficiency of the mortgage underwriting process, however it is critical that there be appropriate transparency, monitoring, and governance. Modernization should be accompanied by guardrails to minimize the risk of incorrect collateral valuation outcomes and any adverse effects on mortgage underwriting. Further, model weaknesses and discrepancies, and ways to mitigate for those weaknesses, should also be considered for determining when and how to use these technologies. It is important that FHFA establish policies that ensure collateral valuation, including the use of competing technologies, such as the two GSEs’ collateral valuation tools, are not a source of competition between the GSEs. When used inappropriately, these tools have the potential to increase risk beyond their expected benefits to the housing finance system.

Many of the ongoing appraisal modernization efforts by the GSEs have led to general process improvements, however it is very important to recognize that automated valuation models (AVMs) and other alternatives to a full appraisal are not appropriate for every property or transaction. USMI believes they should be used in limited circumstances, and only with appropriate guardrails, particularly for higher LTV mortgages where risk is higher and valuation errors may have greater significance.

Data Democratization

The GSEs’ appraisal modernization initiatives have significantly expanded data requirements during the mortgage origination process, with the burden often falling on lenders, mortgage insurers, and other market participants to provide data that informs mortgage underwriting. Industry stakeholders have worked closely with the GSEs since the 2010 launch of the Uniform Mortgage Data Program (UMDP) to implement data collection procedures and technologies to provide data to the GSEs. Despite industry’s commitment to the UMDP and increased data integrity of the Uniform Residential Appraisal Report (URAR), market participants currently do not have a great deal of access to this important data repository. Access to this data would improve market participants’ operations, ultimately benefitting homebuyers and the strength of the housing finance system.

USMI recommends that the FHFA initiate a process to make collateral valuation data available to the parties that contributed to the analysis and that are part of the underwriting process, including appraisers and appraisal management companies, lenders, private mortgage insurers, title insurance companies, investors, and data analytics providers. Greater insight into the GSEs’ collateral valuation technologies and processes will assist with analyses of individual mortgage transactions. Further, the FHFA should implement policies that require the GSEs to share more information about their AVMs, including the tolerances that are incorporated. Data democratization will greatly enhance transparency within the housing finance system and improve risk management practices and strategies across the market.

GSE Appraisal Waiver Policies

One element of the GSEs’ appraisal policies, practices, and processes that we believe warrants particular attention is the expanded use of appraisal waivers for high LTV refinance transactions. While both GSEs have had appraisal waiver programs for nearly a decade, specifically with some of the changes made during 2020, there has been a significant expansion of these programs during the mortgage underwriting process. The share of GSE-backed mortgages receiving appraisal waivers has surged, including a dramatic increase in the use of appraisal waivers for higher LTV loans.

As an industry that is exclusively focused on high LTV mortgage originations, USMI welcomes the opportunity to share our observations concerning the expansion of appraisal waivers in that segment of the market. Appraisal waivers can materially impact LTV ratios and the pricing and risk assessments associated with the GSEs’ guarantee fees, MI premiums, and loan-level capital requirements.3 Importantly, these considerations are more acute for higher LTV loans since the margin of error is slim for these mortgages and could expose the GSEs and the housing finance system to greater credit risk.4 Inaccurate valuations that result from appraisal waivers could enable delivery of loans with LTVs that arbitrarily – and inappropriately – misprice or eliminate MI credit risk protection. Additionally, automated and index-based valuations rely on broader price trends that can overshadow local or property-specific conditions that would point to higher LTVs. Furthermore, the different approaches to appraisal waivers by the two GSEs create frictions that appear to be incentivizing undesirable lender behaviors and further exacerbating these risks.

Industry Observations – Overall Increase in Appraisal Waivers

While the use of appraisal waivers has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the uptick was most notable when the GSEs expanded appraisal waiver eligibility to mortgages with LTVs up to 90 percent in the spring of 2020. Despite the changes that allowed for the significant increase of appraisal waivers, there was little transparency of data around why these changes were necessary, what outcomes they might have, and what guardrails were in place. In January 2020, approximately 85 percent of 80.01-90 percent LTV, rate/term refinance loans at the GSEs received full appraisals and only 15 percent of loans received appraisal waivers, exclusively through Fannie Mae’s program.5 There was a significant decrease in mortgages with full appraisals throughout 2020 and by October 2020, only about 50 percent of GSE-backed 80.01-90 percent LTV, rate/term refinance mortgages received full appraisals.

Industry Observations – AUS Shopping

As a general matter, USMI believes FHFA and the GSEs should establish clear guidelines to ensure that collateral valuation, including the use of different appraisal methodologies and models, is not a source of competition between the two GSEs. Following an internal study of “repeat address transactions” (i.e., transactions where data on the most recent valuation and a prior valuation are available), USMI member companies have noticed significant – and in some respects concerning – differences in valuations between the two GSEs’ respective appraisal waiver programs. FHFA should be mindful of the potential for systemic overvaluations with one of the GSEs’ programs when benchmarked to a local housing price index (HPI) and recognize the lack of transparency around the GSEs’ valuation technologies. This could manipulate the mortgage market and result in lenders’ increased utilization of a specific GSE’s automated underwriting and collateral valuation systems to receive favorable property valuations.

USMI members have also observed, and shared our observations with FHFA, that some lenders appear to be “AUS shopping” to optimize loan execution by testing Fannie Mae’s Desktop Underwriter (DU) and Freddie Mac’s Loan Product Advisor (LPA) for a potential appraisal waiver valuation “advantage.” Our industry has seen compelling evidence that lenders are increasingly running loans through both AUSs to determine which one allows the most “advantageous” property valuation. It is important to note that each GSE conducts a validation when it assesses its own model, a process that does not make presumptions about the other GSE’s model and where it may fail. Applying the two models to the same loan is inconsistent with how they’re validated and effectively undermines the credibility of the GSEs’ own validation processes. The GSEs themselves are aware of the “gaming” potential and USMI strongly encourages the GSEs to take actions to address this concern and prevent inappropriate gaming that might occur through the use of the appraisal waiver valuations.

Industry Observations – Compensating Factors for Appraisal Waivers

USMI members have conducted a forensic analysis of loan files with appraisal waivers and found that both GSE appraisal waiver programs consistently missed adverse site conditions that would have been apparent to a trained appraiser. A primary drawback of appraisal waivers is that they miss critical property data during the valuation process that should be collected and analyzed as part of the underwriting process. While property data need not be concurrent with a refinance transaction, recent data is important to industry participants, especially those with a vested interest in mortgage credit risk post-closing.

While the use of appraisal waivers has dramatically increased, there has been minimal transparency concerning whether the GSEs have specific credit policies regarding loan eligibility for their respective appraisal waiver programs. The expanded use of appraisal waivers should be accompanied by a transparent set of compensating factors for determining loan-by-loan waiver decisions. Data from 2020 suggests that at least one of the GSEs takes into account debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, credit score, and whether the borrower has a prior full appraisal on file. USMI believes these types of overlays are appropriate to mitigate the incremental risk of appraisal waivers. While not directly tied to collateral valuation, weaker DTIs and credit scores may correlate to deferred maintenance and property condition issues that go undetected when appraisal waivers are utilized.

Property data collection is a particularly important part of the valuation and underwriting processes. One appropriate guardrail for mortgages that receive appraisal waivers or other flexibilities would be to require a property inspection followed by a Desktop Review. One of the biggest challenges with the appraisal waiver programs is that property data collection is missed, and this policy would help mitigate the risk associated with underwriting a mortgage without a full appraisal.

Recommendations

Many of the appraisal modernization efforts of the GSEs over the years have led to general process improvements, however it is very important to recognize that AVMs and other alternatives to a full appraisal are not appropriate for every situation. For the reasons outlined above, USMI believes appraisal alternatives should be used in limited circumstances, and only with appropriate guardrails. To better tailor the use of appraisal waivers, it is critical that the GSEs’ programs be subject to robust oversight by FHFA and that strong governance policies be in place to promote transparency and facilitate data sharing with market mortgage market participants. It is especially important that the FHFA implement policies that recognize and speak to the unique risks associated with the use of waiver appraisals in the high LTV segment of the market. As the equity position on a mortgage decreases, the risk of loss severity can increase, and these mortgages cannot merely rely on amortization or home price appreciation (HPA) to guard against risk stemming from incorrect AVM valuations. FHFA and the GSEs should implement policies to address the potential for “gaming” to test and shop appraisal waiver programs to reduce LTVs and/or reduce or eliminate MI coverage requirements. Particular attention should be given to the 80 percent LTV threshold, which is a segment of the market that has historically been the largest contributor of GSE losses. The usage of appraisal waivers to “game” the 80 percent LTV segment to reduce or eliminate MI coverage shifts a greater burden of losses toward taxpayers and away from private capital. Further, while LTV is – to some degree – correlated to loan performance, guardrails such as the presence of compensating factors should be considered to inform policies that pertain to this specific segment of the market.

****************************

USMI appreciates the opportunity to share its views on these important issues with the FHFA. We welcome any questions you may have, as well as requests for data to supplement our observations and recommendations. USMI welcomes efforts by FHFA to properly balance innovation in the housing finance system with the need for transparent standards and appropriate protections.

Sincerely,

Lindsey Johnson
President

View the full letter as a PDF.

© Copyright 2021 U.S. Mortgage Insurers