But when that appraisal came in suspiciously low, the Hortons had a second one done — this time removing any items that might lead the appraiser to suspect the home was inhabited by an African American. Sure enough, the second appraisal came in at $465,000 — $115,000 more than before the home had been “whitewashed.”
I read that story with interest, but also with a certain rueful recognition. As a Black person, I pay close attention to issues pertaining to race. And, as a real estate agent with more than 30 years of experience (technically a former agent, since I retired last year), I am only too aware of the multitude of ways that the industry is riddled with built-in biases and pitfalls for homeowners of color.
If you are a Black home owner, you need to clear your shelves of family reunion photos and remove the Afrocentric art from walls. And I once told an Indian couple that the statues of Ganesh would have to come down from the mantle, at least until after the sale of their home had closed.
Now in all fairness, even if the sellers are White, realtors sometimes tell them to remove family photos and other personal effects: A home seller wants people to be able to imagine themselves in the house. You don’t want to remind them of the family that lives there now.
It’s always a little awkward to tell a family to scrub all evidence of their cultural or racial background when they put their house up for sale. But sadly, negative associations appear to attach to the home in the minds of some prospective buyers if it belongs to a family of color — so much so, that it can lead to a substantial downgrading in the value of the property.
I’ve tried to be as open as possible with my clients: I let them know that people have their stereotypes and their prejudices — and let them. That should not stop my clients from getting as much money as they can, regardless of the prospective buyer’s conscious or unconscious biases.
And while it is true that the value of a home can be somewhat subjective (depending on how a home has been maintained or upgraded, for example), the parameters for assessing home values are fairly clear: Appraisers are supposed to look at what recent comparable homes have sold for in the neighborhood or a nearby comparable neighborhood, taking into consideration the condition of the home being refinanced.
On that basis, there simply isn’t room to explain the widely divergent home appraisals when looking at Black-owned homes versus White-owned ones. What is devaluing these homes is the simple fact that Black and brown bodies have inhabited them. It’s not that far removed, when you think about it, from the notion that Blacks and Whites shouldn’t swim in the same waters at the swimming pool, or can’t drink from the same water fountain. It is the very definition of racism.
What continues to surprise me is that many White people, even real estate professionals, appear to be taken aback when they learn about this differential treatment that African Americans are subjected to in their dealings with the industry. But in my experience, Black home sellers are rarely surprised. We have all gotten the memo about needing to white-wash our homes.
So what can be done to stem the problem of racism in appraisals? The industry can start by hiring more appraiser of colors, and making sure that all of them have the training they need to be able to identify and root out discriminatory practices.
And if none of those solutions does the trick, then there’s another time-tested one that just might — legal action. In at least a few of the highly publicized cases, the families in question have initiated lawsuits against the appraisers. If enough lawsuits are filed against what appears to be an industry unable to solve its problem with bias, I suspect that appraisal companies will take note and clean up their act.