This article was written in 1994.
I regularly write about appraisal business management issues
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Note: this article was originally written in 1994 and published in Appraisal Today (formerly Appraisal Management & Marketing), during the appraisal recession. However, these tips are always useful. It is copyrighted. For reprint permission, Contact Us.
When business is strong, we sometimes forget about being frugal, but we all remember the “bad days” of the appraisal recession in the mid-1990s. You don’t want to be scrambling to “do something” if you are in a cash crunch. If you are doing okay, why not cut some costs and put more money in your pocket?
There are two primary rules, used by all properly managed companies, from one-appraiser firms to Fortune 500 companies:
1. Pay your bills only when they are due.
2. Get your income as soon as possible.
Fortunately for appraisal firms, most of the costs are variable. For example, if your work volume drops, your photo processing and appraisal fee split labor also drop. But fixed costs, such as rent and support staff, can cause financial problems when appraisal assignments drop off quickly.
1. Pay no bill before its time. Don’t pay any bills until they’re due. See who has a late charge, and who doesn’t. Send checks out on Friday to take advantage of the weekend “float.”
2. Exercise dormant lines of credit. Frequently business owners set up lines of credit they don’t use. The bank may drop your line of credit if it is not used for a certain period of time, so be sure to check their use requirements. If there is an annual cost, such as 1%, many business owners consider dropping a line of credit. But remember the rule of banking: If you really need the money, you probably can’t qualify for the loan.
3. If you don’t have a line of credit, set one up now. Check around for competitive rates. It’s a lot cheaper than using credit cards if you’re really in a cash flow pinch.
4. Closely monitor your three sources of cash:
– Appraisals in process, not yet completed
– Appraisals billed out, but not yet collected
– Paid billings: cash on hand
5. Complete and bill out appraisals as fast as possible. The sooner they’re billed, the sooner they’ll be paid. We’re all tempted to “let the work fill up the time available.” But, it delays payment of your bill. If they don’t have the appraisal, they won’t pay the bill.
6. Give your associate appraisers a higher fee split if they’re willing to wait to be paid until you’re paid for appraisals. This policy can be a substantial help to cash flow problems as the highest percent of expenses is appraisal labor.
7. Be very aggressive with past-due accounts, particularly non-institutional companies, such as mortgage brokers. With many mortgage brokers expected to go out of business, and both mortgage bankers and brokers having cash flow problems, let them be late paying someone else, not you. In collections, the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Call every day if necessary.
8. Get interest on your money by setting up a “sweeps” account or interest bearing checking account, and doing daily deposits. Even if it’s only two or three percent interest, it’s better than nothing.
9. Get as many pre-payment or COD’s as possible. Offer a discount, if necessary. Require pre-payment from private clients, or business clients that may cause payment problems. If they won’t pre-pay or COD, turn down the work. Don’t work for free.
Rent – office and storage
10. Renegotiate your lease to a lower rent, or a temporary lower rent while business is slow. If office vacancies are high, your landlord will probably prefer reduced rent to no rent.
11. Sublet unused office space to appraisers or non-appraisers. Or, move out of your larger office space to a smaller sublet office. See the June, 1994 issue’s article on shared office space.
12. If you need to move or downsize to a smaller office, but have a lease, work with your landlord. Maybe he or she will let you sublease, make a partial payment of the rest of your lease, or move to a smaller space. In most parts of the country, the office market is not doing well, and landlords are willing to negotiate. Negotiate with the landlord for some type of compensation for phone and electrical improvements you have made and paid for, but will have to leave behind when you move.
13. Move “back home” and work out of the garage, spare bedroom, or even the dining room table. If you think it’s too cramped, consider it only temporary until business picks up again.
14. Shop around for low-cost storage space. We have to save our files for at least 5 years, and many of us save them for much longer. What to keep and throw out in files is an individual decision, but you can shop for a lower storage cost.
15. Get rid of excess stored stuff, such as old office furniture. Sell it or give it away. Don’t pay storage costs for things you really don’t need. Don’t be a packrat.
16. Keep close track of your competitor’s costs. Don’t underbid or lose work because you overbid. When fees are changing, don’t get left behind and lose valuable assignments from overbidding, or income from underbidding.
17. Don’t offer lower prices to a client that isn’t price sensitive. Why give away your profits? Not everyone gives assignments to the low bidder. Some don’t even do competitive bidding.
18. Know your costs on appraisals. The high fee jobs may not be the most profitable. It may be more profitable to set up referral alliances with appraisers in other geographic areas, rather than spend the time traveling and doing extra research on an area you’re not familiar with.
Dues and publications
19. Carefully review each organization where you pay dues. Do you really participate, or do you send in dues because “you always have.” You can always rejoin later, when business picks up if you feel guilty about dropping out.
20. Review the publications you subscribe to. If a publication doesn’t really help you in your business, consider not renewing.
21. Cut back principals’ salaries. Pay yourself last, after paying all other expenses. Although this may seem obvious, many companies have developed serious financial problems because the owners kept taking out large salaries.
22. “Lease” your employees. Instead of laying off an experienced secretary, lease him or her to another company until business picks up again.
23. Use temporary help whenever possible when your business substantially increases. That’s how the mortgage lending industry handled the 1991 to 1993 substantial increases in lending volumes. They first let go the temps, then the permanent employees.
24. Use part-time support staff. They don’t require benefits and usually have more flexible hours. Laying off a part-timer, or cutting back their hours, is much easier than a long-term loyal, full-time employee.
25. Have a cost cutting brainstorming session with your associates and support staff. If you’re working alone, set up a lunch with your accountant or other appraisal business owners to swap ideas. You’ll get many ideas you’ve never thought about before.
26. Have one person attend a seminar, and then later “show and tell” the rest of your staff. For example, we all want to find out about the new USPAP changes, but the seminars are expensive. Just send one person, who gives a “mini-seminar” to your other associates and yourself.
27. Attend only local seminars to eliminate travel costs. If there’s an out-of-town seminar you want to take, call the sponsor and see if it will be offered locally. Or see if you can purchase audio cassettes or video tapes.
28. Use an outside payroll service such as Paychex or ADP to cut bookkeeping payroll costs. Or, do it yourself by using a simple software program like Quickbooks. Don’t use a CPA to do your bookkeeping.
29. Broaden staff responsibilities. For example, instead of paying an outside bookkeeper, have your secretary do it. If you have to lay off a full-time secretary because your work has dropped, consider letting a less experienced associate appraiser do part-time clerical work. At least they’ll have some income. Instead of having outside firms do janitorial and delivery services, have your employees do it. It’s better than getting laid off, or sitting around worrying about getting laid off.
30. Cut your FICA and FUTA by setting up non-cash compensation, such as a “cafeteria” benefits plan with such benefits as health insurance and paid time off.
31. Use college interns or co-op students for research, setting up databases, etc. They work for credit or a low salary on a short term basis and can work on specific projects, or on general research.
32. Get free or low cost consulting from a local college business school’s small business consulting programs, or the SBA’s SCORE (Senior Corps of Retired Executives) program. They can give you advice on such topics as marketing, collections, and cost accounting.
33. Be sure you’re not overpaying for workers compensation. How are your appraisers classified? They are relatively low risk for a claim and should be classified as real estate agents or some other category, rather than as much more expensive inspectors. If your insurance company insists on classifying them in a high rate category, change insurers. If this year’s workers comp is based on last year’s employment, be sure to notify your insurer if this year’s payroll is expected to be lower.
34. If you have high production typists, be sure to minimize repetitive stress to avoid workers comp rate increases, if one of them becomes disabled. Contact your workers comp carrier for more information.
35. Look at your auto insurance coverage. Consider dropping collision on older vehicles. If the car is only worth $1,500, why pay $200 per year extra for collision?
36. Raise deductibles on such coverage as auto collision, disability, property/casualty, and liability insurance. For example, have disability insurance “kick in” after 90 days instead of 30 days.
37. Evaluate all your insurance policies for their risk/benefit, and decide which ones you think you will really need. Don’t overinsure.
38. Don’t overpay your income tax quarterlies. If you anticipate that your taxable income will drop this year, don’t pay taxes based on last year’s income. Work with your accountant to pay quarterlies based on a more accurate estimate. If you’ve already overpaid your quarterlies, ask your accountant about a quick refund, using Forms 4466 and 1138.
39. Close to year-end, schedule a tax-planning meeting with your accountant to shift income and expenses. For example, shift income into the next year to decrease this year’s taxes.
40. Shop for the best prices. Don’t pay too much attention to percent discount. Look at the bottom line. No one pays full retail. Purchasing supplies in bulk may be worthwhile.
41. Use office warehouse companies like Office Club. They usually offer the lowest prices. Many will deliver. Don’t forget discount stores like Price Club, Wal-Mart, and Costco. Many carry some of the most-purchased office supplies, like paper, pens, and laserjet cartridges. You don’t always need to buy brand names.
42. Keep close track of inventory so you don’t have to pay someone to “run over” to the nearby high-priced office supply store.
43. Lock the supply cabinet. Yes, this will cause grumbling. Explain that it will keep it neater, and you’ll be less likely run out of supplies.
44. Use fax instead of U.S. mail whenever possible. It’s cheaper and faster.
45. Use the back side of old copies for rough drafts to cut your paper costs.
46. Cut “post-it” pads into smaller sizes to use for page markers. Or, have your photo processor do it.
Equipment and phones
47. Sell or donate excess office furniture and equipment. Storage space is expensive. You can sell it to employees, the public, or the vendor (on consignment). Donate it to local charities or schools.
48. When leasing equipment, get an option to cancel due to closure or consolidation. Don’t get an “evergreen clause”, where the contract always continues unless you give 30 days notice. They are difficult to cancel, as the expiration date is hard to monitor.
49. Renegotiate your equipment leases. For example, change to a smaller copier. Buy shorter maintenance agreements, so that, for example, if your copier volume is lowered, you can decrease maintenance. See if you really need all your service contracts. Maybe its better to pay for repairs on an ad hoc basis.
50. Reduce phone lines. If you have fewer staff, you need fewer phone lines. Cancel some of the optional features you don’t really need.
51. Make long distance calls and fax during off peak hours. If you’re on the East Coast, make West Coast calls after 5 P.M., when it’s only 2 P.M. on the West Coast. Conversely, on the West Coast, make your East Coast calls before 8 A.M.