Volatile Market Challenges N.J. Property Appraiser Mike Timoni has an almost recession-proof job. He appraises home prices in New Jersey — and in today's volatile market, his assessments are very important. He says that despite the market downturn, his job is as busy as ever.

Volatile Market Challenges N.J. Property Appraiser

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Another report shows falling home prices today. Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller Index tracks prices in 10 major metro areas. Prices go 5 percent in August, that's the biggest tumble in 16 years. And sales of existing homes were down 8 percent in September, according to the National Association of Realtors. But trying to predict exactly where prices will change is tricky. The market varies from one neighborhood to the next.

Nancy Solomon spent some time with a property appraiser in New Jersey.

NANCY SOLOMON: Mike Timoni has an almost recession-proof job. When the economy is booming, his phone rings off the hook from banks and mortgage companies looking for a property appraisal before making a loan. When the housing market sours, he gets more calls to appraise foreclosures before auction, or from divorcing couples in need of an independent market price for their home.

Mr. MIKE TIMONI (Property Appraiser): It's easier when the market's in good shape because everything just floats up naturally and prices aren't all over the place. But as funny as it might sound, when things are going bad in the market, as well as for people, lots of stuff goes bad. When the economy is bad, the divorce rate goes up and there's a lot of movement.

Careful kiddo, just stay close to me.

SOLOMON: Timoni is appraising a three-family house in North Newark - a tall, narrow building with an apartment on each floor - in a neighborhood of multi-family homes. It's a solid working-class street with fewer vacant buildings than most areas of this mostly low-income city.

Mr. TIMONI: Can you see?

SOLOMON: No.

The house is boarded up and the utilities are turned off - leaving the basement pitch dark, except for the way too small beam of Timoni's flashlight.

Mr. TIMONI: This is the scariest part for me in the wintertime because…

SOLOMON: Can give me a little light. Thank you.

Mr. TIMONI: …in the wintertime, because the squatters get in these buildings. And usually, they're harmless people. I mean, they're just trying to get in from out of the cold. But their idea of what's important and yours are going to be different.

SOLOMON: The place is in crummy shape. All the pipes have been stolen for scrap. There's black mold growing in the basement. All in all, a routine day for Timoni. Whether he's appraising a foreclosure in Newark or a multimillion dollar mansion in New Jersey's high Hightstown(ph) hills, Timoni says the job is basically the same.

Mr. TIMONI: I'm a one-trick pony. I'd give you exact same thing for every property every day for the last 25 years.

SOLOMON: After inspecting the property, Timoni heads for his Cadillac, where he has a file of recent sales of three-family buildings in North Newark.

Mr. TIMONI: And it's quiet time. This is when the appraiser is thinking.

SOLOMON: He chooses three that he'll visit and photograph, programs and address into his GPS and heads off to see the comparable properties.

(Soundbite of GPS system)

Unidentified Woman: Approaching hard right turn.

SOLOMON: Timoni went into his father's business some 25 years ago. So being well-established shields him from the drop in business that other appraisers say they're already seeing. And lenders have made an about face in how they evaluate loan applications.

Mr. MICHAEL BORODINSKY (Branch Manager, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage): The appraisal matters more than ever.

SOLOMON: Michael Borodinsky is head of home mortgages for Wells Fargo in Clark, New Jersey.

Mr. BORODINSKY: They're being scrutinized. The comments that they're making in their assessment of this market is more important than ever because this market is changing. Looking at a comparable sale that's six months old, to me, may even be obsolete at this point because it no longer is reflective of current market conditions.

SOLOMON: Watching Mike Timoni, you'd never guess he's under more pressure. He's confident in his ability to come up with a market price for any property.

Mr. TIMONI: It might appear to the public that it changes from week to week. It doesn't really change from week to week. I mean, you only - you'd look at things in a six-month bubble. It's more than likely if things are really changing. It might not be noticeable for at least three months. But it doesn't change on a week-to-week basis.

SOLOMON: But it is changing. In New Jersey, working in middle-class areas are seeing many more foreclosures and prices are dropping in all but the most desirable neighborhoods. Timoni counts himself among the lucky that he's not affected. In 25 years, the only real change is that he now has GPS in his car and his father no longer requires him to wear a suit and tie every day.

Mr. TIMONI: And that about wraps it up.

SOLOMON: With those two improvements, he says, he can withstand any curve balls the housing market might throw him.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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