N.Y. Attorney General: Appraisers Inflated Home Values

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said Thursday a major real estate appraisal company colluded with the nation's largest savings and loan companies to inflate the values of homes, contributing to the subprime mortgage crisis.
"This is a case we believe is indicative of an industry-wide problem," Cuomo said in a news conference.
Cuomo announced a lawsuit against eAppraiseIT that accuses the First American Corp. subsidiary of

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said Thursday a major real estate appraisal company colluded with the nation's largest savings and loan companies to inflate the values of homes, contributing to the subprime mortgage crisis.

"This is a case we believe is indicative of an industry-wide problem," Cuomo said in a news conference.

Cuomo announced a lawsuit against eAppraiseIT that accuses the First American Corp. subsidiary of caving in to pressure from Washington Mutual to use a list of "proven appraisers" who he claims inflated home appraisals.

He also released e-mails that he said show executives were aware they were violating federal regulations. The lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan seeks to stop the practice, recover profits and assess penalties.

"These blatant actions of First American and eAppraiseIT have contributed to the growing foreclosure crisis and turmoil in the housing market," Cuomo said in a statement. "By allowing Washington Mutual to hand-pick appraisers who inflated values, First American helped set the current mortgage crisis in motion."

He said investors were hurt by buying mortgages based on inflated property values. Cuomo added that consumers will suffer for years because they were stuck with mortgage payments based on unrealistic values for their properties, a problem that will worsen as housing sale prices drop in much of the country.

Home buyers forced into foreclosure could also end up owing more than they should, Cuomo said.

"And now you have a mountain of personal debt for the rest of your life," he told reporters.

Driven by a hungry market for bonds backed by home loans, mortgage lenders expanded subprime lending dramatically in 2005 and 2006. In many cases, they made loans to people at low initial "teaser" rates, which reset substantially higher one to three years later at levels some borrowers couldn't afford.

The inability of many of those borrowers to cover loan payments once they reset led to the credit crisis. More than 50 lenders have gone out of business this year, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs in the industry, foreclosures have soared nationwide and it has become more difficult for home buyers to get home loans.

"The independence of the appraiser is essential to maintaining the integrity of the mortgage industry," Cuomo said, citing several e-mails between the companies' executives.

"First American and eAppraiseIT violated that independence when Washington Mutual strong-armed them into a system designed to rip off homeowners and investors alike," he said.

Neither company responded to messages left Thursday morning.

Cuomo said eAppraiseIT and the parent company knew its actions were illegal, citing an April 17, 2007 e-mail from eAppraiseIT's president to First American that said, "We view this as a violation of the OCC, OTS, FDIC and USPAP influencing regulation."

"This is another example where the federal government is asleep at the switch," Cuomo said.

"It runs through the entire mortgage spectrum," he said. "Everyone is relying on the appraisal ... The appraisal is really the linchpin of the home buying transaction."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. Active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.

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