What’s the best way to find an appraiser?

Finding a qualified appraiser to value personal property should be easy, but that is rarely the case. For some, it is a highly confusing, almost daunting task, especially for people settling estates, moving to assisted living facilities or just downsizing.

There are few if any controls on who can list themselves as an appraiser of personal property. While real estate appraisers are strictly licensed in most states, personal property appraisers are usually unlicensed. Anyone with a special collecting niche or with considerable knowledge in one area can identify themselves as an appraiser. Personal property appraisers are readily found through the “Yellow Pages” or on the Internet. Ferreting out a professional appraiser is simply a matter of checking ethics, knowledge and credentials.

Many appraisers we’ve met through the years consider themselves knowledgeable and ethical, but when questioned, have a hidden agenda that often compromises the integrity of their appraisal. Thus, the most vulnerable families — older adults settling estates and those less knowledgeable about antique values or personal property appraisal — are often victimized.

The rise of national appraiser societies, motivated by years of unethical appraisals and the problems they have caused, has positively affected the quality of the modern personal property appraisal. Professional appraisal societies bind their members to a strict code of ethics and test members on their knowledge of antiques styles, collectibles, research skills, pricing knowledge and even provide access to Internet sites to assist in pricing particular items.

What is the best way to find the right appraiser? What questions should you ask?

First, check the Internet or telephone directory for the names of personal property appraisers in your area.

Names are easily accessed from the Internet through appraiser societies such as: American Society of Appraisers (www.appraisers.org), International Society of Appraisers (www.isa-appraisers.org), Appraisers Association of America (www.appraisersassoc.org), and the Certified Appraisers Guild of America (www.appraisersguild.com). Each society provides listings of appraisers by location, including individual specialties, so it won’t be difficult to find several in your geographic area. Choose three to interview.

Many appraisers preparing an appraisal report, especially those belonging to a society, are required to follow a prescribed written form. Certified Appraisers Guild of America reports include a statement demonstrating that the appraiser has no financial interest in the valued property, an accurate and complete description of the property under appraisal, an analysis of factors affecting value, a definition of value, the reason for the appraisal and the appraiser’s qualifications.

Verbal appraisals have no legal standing, so be sure that yours is submitted in written form. If you do accept a verbal appraisal, no written record of value will be available to present to the courts or insurance agency. Written records are absolutely necessary.

Ask each appraiser for a copy of a recent appraisal and references. Appraisers are required to keep an appraisal confidential, but can cover up the client’s name and item values while still providing a report that demonstrates competency. An appraiser unwilling to provide references may have something to hide.

Less professional appraisers tend to list items without descriptions and prices and without an explanation of value. They may lack appraisal training, the credentials needed to back up the appraisal or serve as an expert witness in court, if that need arises. Most of all, they will resist providing a disclaimer of financial interest. That means they may attempt to purchase appraised items below market value — a definite conflict of interest. Remember, many appraisers, whether associated with a professional appraisal society or not, will follow a rigorous code of ethics and are capable of preparing a quality appraisal. Unfortunately, not all appraisers are ethical.

Be wary of appraisers who claim they can appraise everything. Appraisers usually have certain fields of knowledge that fall within their comfort zone. Certified appraisers list their specialty and have the capability of drawing on other certified appraisers with knowledge in a wide variety of fields to complement their own expertise. Most others also network. Thus, if a general appraiser is called to do a whole house appraisal, he/she could possibly handle all, if not most, of the work. But if a collection of rare stamps, coins or silver might be found, other expert appraisers in those specialties might be needed to complete the appraisal.
Let’s look a few typical examples:

• An antique store owner is called to do an appraisal, and on viewing the estate, decides that certain items are worth purchasing. An offer to purchase items purposefully appraised below market value is provided. What would keep an appraiser from valuing the items below market value so they can be purchased at a low price? A statement within the appraisal report indicating no financial interest in the property solves the problem and protects the client. Fortunately, not all antique dealers are ethically challenged in this way. However, it only takes one to work the “low-price scam.”

• An auctioneer is called to provide an appraisal and valuation for an estate. Upon viewing the items he recognizes that there is money to be made. So the auctioneer increases the value of the estate to entice the heirs to sign an auction contract with a selling commission included, leading them to think that they will make a killing.

Again, a financial disclaimer will protect the integrity of the appraisal and protect heirs from unethical auction and appraisal practices. However, ask more then one auctioneer for a valuation before signing a contract.

Some families actually put their estates into a formal bid process, while searching for the lowest commission. Here, more then one auctioneer is asked for a valuation and commission offer. There is a good chance that values could be clarified and commissions reduced. In this instance, competition between auctioneers works to your benefit. But be careful — the lowest commission rate, while enticing, sometimes gets you the poorest performance.

Not every auctioneer or auction house performs appraisals in this way. Houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s and William Doyle Galleries, just to name a few, have many employees on their staff who are experts in their fields and capable of performing professional appraisals. There are upstanding auction houses in many areas of the country capable of ethically performing appraisals. Unfortunately, there are just as many who are unethical.

All appraisers charge a fee. However, not all fees charged are ethical. An appraiser should never base a fee on a percentage of the appraised value. Those that do might increase the market value of items to an unrealistic level, enabling high fees to be charged. Appraisal fees should be based on either an hourly fee or a per-item charge. Fees should be agreed upon before the appraisal is performed, presented in writing, and signed by both parties.

Protect yourself, ask the right questions and you’ll get what you want — an accurate, ethical and properly priced appraisal.