Editor in Chief Sarah Wheeler sat down with Kenon Chen, executive vice president of strategy and growth at Clear Capital, to talk about appraisal modernization and how technology is just part of the solution.
Sarah Wheeler: What are some of the biggest challenges right now?
Kenon Chen: The challenge that’s in front of everyone continues to be the market itself, and then housing affordability. With mortgage rates continuing to remain high and home prices remaining high because of low supply, we’ve had another year of a reduced market. It’s difficult for lenders who don’t have a lot of extra cash to invest in making big changes right now — they need to stay focused on running their business in a smart way. But that’s why I think it’s really on solution providers like us to run ahead and create great opportunities that don’t require a lot of extra work and time and investment.
For us that means really simple APIs that are easy to integrate with, providing flexible options for how lenders can consume the products. That’s also making sure we’re partnering with the ecosystem to solve problems before the lender even asks for it and working with partners to make sure they can consume these products within the solutions they’re already using. That’s been a big part of the focus: getting the whole ecosystem to work together better so it doesn’t put all the onus on lenders to have to integrate a lot of different places to just get one solution together.
SW: How are appraisers adapting to some of these challenges, including new rules on valuations from the GSEs?
KC: Change is always hard. The GSEs implemented a number of policy changes that are an evolution from what appraisal has been for decades. So now we have multiple risk-based options: waivers, waiver plus property data, desktop appraisals, hybrid. Lenders and appraisal companies have a lot more menu options and their tech choices have to take them down the right path.
We’ve invested in the property data collection process and scaled it for a national level with mobile tech to capture all of the data right at the site. We’re using computer vision, AI, to capture the whole property into the space. We’re creating a digital twin and bringing the property into the digital realm, building a formation model and driving from that place as opposed to starting from a clipboard.
That’s required changes for everyone involved and we’ve been rolling that out as the market change happened at the same time. We see lenders really looking to the future and preparing for when volume returns — investing now to have a competitive edge in the future.
SW: How hard is it to change the way valuations are done at a fundamental level?
KC: Many lenders’ loan origination systems are really just providing a document repository and maybe some screens. But what ends up happening is that underwriters have to open up a lot of different documents, go to a lot of different sites. And one, that’s inefficient, but two, I think there’s something powerful about aggregating all the data first, running models on it, and then bringing back findings that focus underwriters where they need to look.
Most lenders’ loan origination systems are not designed to do that, for collateral especially. That’s been an area that’s a lot more PDF-based, because you have a PDF-based appraisal, you have a PDF base SSR. So that’s why we’ve invested a lot in a tool with an API that you can bring all your findings in at one place, as well as underwriting tools that put the right information in front of the right person at the right time. But all of that takes years of investment to create something that is really battle tested and can have proven results.
SW: Is the end goal of appraisal modernization to replace appraisers?
KC: The GSEs say all the time that they didn’t redesign these processes to replace appraisers, but to add more objectivity to the process, to create efficiencies in the process. Regardless of the tech used, there are human eyes reading, observing and looking at the data or a model, but starting with objective truth about the subject property is essential. And having a process that’s repeatable and standardized and consistent in every community — that’s where tech really helps.
We’ve been able to roll out standards through our mobile app that guides appraisers so that they’re grabbing the same data in the same way at every home. The evolution of mobile tech and AI and then greater connectivity when it comes to APIs to bring that data to people at their desks is what’s allowed us to approach this differently and do it at scale.
SW: Getting accurate square footage and floor plans has been a thorn in the side of the GSEs and agencies for years. Is that now solved?
KC: We went shopping for a solution back in 2016. There was a refi boom in Oregon and Colorado and appraisals were taking six weeks at the time. There was so much pain caused by elongated turn times — borrowers having to live In hotels when they were in between properties. We thought there has to be a better way.
Looking at the amount of time just driving, a time study showed appraisers were spending sometimes 30-40 hours a month just driving. Instead, we wanted to bring homes to the appraiser. We tried everything but we didn’t find anything that scaled to where anyone could do it with a mobile phone. Then we discovered CubiCasa and it actually worked. We had a partnership that led to acquiring the company. It’s now been adopted by real estate agents, brokers, photographers. We have about 30 Multiple Listing Services who have partnered with us as well.
MLSs want more accurate data and public records not always up to date. CubiCasa provides better data, shortening the days on market for the property. Consumers can really understand the property before they visit. It’s really rare that an app helps both the real estate process and the mortgage process and also makes secondary investors more comfortable.
SW: What keeps you up at night?
KC: Tech is always changing. And the conversations around generative AI have captivated the industry because seeing how fast things are changing and how fast these new capabilities are coming is now a lot more visible. So it’s always necessary to innovate, but in a way where you’re not introducing risk into the system. For us, it’s always about innovating in a thoughtful way, not just to try the new thing for the sake of trying a new thing, but making sure it really will have the outcome, the benefits we’re looking for and that it can be really useful to our clients.