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The ideal appraisal forms software

The ideal appraisal forms software – 1997 – This is a Blast From the Past!!

This article was published in Appraisal Today in October, 1997 and was written by Ann O’Rourke. I put in Editor’s Notes for 1999. It is copyrighted. For reprint permission, Contact Us. Much has changed since then. This article is included to give a historical perspective.

With shorter appraisal reports, upgrades to full inspections, and other changes in residential appraising coming faster and faster, increasing appraisal productivity is critical. Your forms program is a key factor.

Commercial appraisers have used forms for years, particularly apartment form reports. Forms can greatly increase productivity, which is particularly important when clients are unwilling to pay reasonable fees for complete appraisals in a self-contained format.

Before writing this article, I didn’t do extensive analysis and testing of a lot of forms software programs. Instead, I listened to what many appraisers said, both good and bad, about the software they were using. And, of course, I considered what I want, since I use forms software every day. Forms software today is a “moving target” with so many vendors moving into the Windows environment, and new updates coming out frequently. Doing a comparative review is almost impossible.

In this article I describe what to look for in your “ideal” appraisal forms software. Is your ideal software the same as mine? Probably not, but this article will help you decide what you want. Does anyone have the “perfect” software? No! Am I looking for this? Yes. Isn’t everyone?

Price

Remember the days of spending over $1,000 for forms software for the forms you “had to have,” and using a typewriter for the forms you used occasionally? Of course, to run the programs you also had to have a PC with a 30 MB hard drive that cost $5,000. Prices of software from most vendors has dropped, particularly if you compare the costs of old DOS software, that had a separate program for each form, to the basic packages of many vendors today.

When comparing prices from forms vendors, be sure to add up all the costs:

  1. Basic price
  2. Additional add on features you want now, or expect to need in the future
  3. Support and upgrade costs

If prices have dropped, how are vendors able to make money? Whenever a new form comes out, you need software. Upgrade and support contracts provide an annual income source for almost all vendors. For maximum productivity, you need digital photos, which is often an extra cost. Many appraisers want integrated sketch, appraisal management, data management, and mapping programs, which are often “add on” features for an additional cost.

In the old DOS days, some vendors had all the forms in one program and some let you buy the forms you wanted. Now, almost all the vendors have (or are moving toward) one price for all the forms, or forms modules, such as residential, commercial, and agricultural.

Instead of developing their own add-on features, such as sketch programs or external comp management, many vendors are licensing software from other companies (“add ons”). Usually there are additional costs for these programs.

Updates and support are often combined, but some vendors offer them separately. Updates refer to both new versions of the software and new forms. A few vendors still offer free support and updates when you need them.

Levels of support are often offered, such as, email and a toll call during business hours for the lowest price to 800-number support for 12 hours a day, or more. Whether or not there are long waits for anyone to answer the phone or reply to an email inquiry is very important.

With new forms coming out regularly, forms updates are mandatory. Even if you don’t purchase an annual support/upgrade contract, you will have to purchase new software. If you decide not to purchase an upgrade contract, be sure to see if you have to pay for all the years you didn’t pay, when you need a new form.

My “ideal” software would have flexible pricing. I could purchase support, upgrades, and “add ons” on a case by case basis. I prefer Internet (web) support via a searchable database of questions and answers rather than a live person, but would pay extra if I really needed to speak directly with someone. I very seldom need support after the first 60 days and would not want to pay for it.

I often don’t upgrade to a new software version if the old one is okay and I don’t need the new features. So, I prefer a forms vendor that would allow me to purchase the new version when I needed it, even if I didn’t purchase one for three or four years. Of course, I would not want to pay a hefty upgrade fee.

Copy protection

Many forms vendors use various methods of restricting unauthorized use, such as, hardware devices (“dongles”), imprinting company or individual appraiser names, or special unlocking codes.

In the software industry, the commonly accepted way of handling multiple installs is to allow it for a computer at home and at work, for example. The idea is that the program will not be used at the same time at home and at work. Installing it on all the computers in your office for use by all the appraisers without paying a site license fee is illegal.

Restrictions to only one install, or using a special hardware device, are real problems if the device breaks, or if you need to reinstall the program. Of course, this inevitably happens late at night, when the appraisal must be sent out the next morning!

Imprinting a company name or appraiser’s name create problems when you use independent contractors who work for a number of different appraisal firms. The independent contractors don’t want to buy a special version of the software for every appraisal company they work for. Appraisal companies don’t want to buy a special version of the software for every independent contractor appraiser they use.

Special unlocking codes have fewer problems, except when you have to get a code every time you want to reinstall the program. Of course, that’s assuming you can find the code when you need it, when you finally buy a new computer!

My ideal forms software would have no copy restrictions, of course!

Hardware requirements (Ed note: this is less of a problem in 1999, as many appraisers have purchased new computers.)

Most Windows forms software requires a minimum of a fast 486, preferably a fast Pentium. If you’re doing digital photos, you will want the fastest computer you can afford.

Although the price of computers has dropped dramatically in the past 10 years, if you want digital imaging, you will need a digital camera and a color printer. Most appraisers are using inkjet printers, costing $400 to $1,200, depending on the speed and durability.

My ideal forms software would run on my two old 486/33s, as a stand alone or networked.

Photo management

Digital images are great, and really help automate the appraisal reporting process. The method your forms vendor uses for managing photos is important.

Ideally, you should be able to use any twain-compliant camera for digital imaging. If you just want to pull your images into a word processing document, that will probably work works fine. Unfortunately, forms vendors have to write a special program for each camera to manage the images so that you can easily download, print, and find the photos when you need them. In other words, make sure the camera you have (or want to buy) is fully supported by your forms software vendor.

A fast method for downloading is “streaming” all the photos, using a PC card reader, into your computer. Downloading itself is pretty straightforward, whatever hardware or software you use.

After the images are downloaded you have to label them. Just like with 35mm, that’s the hardest part. Printing out color thumbnail “contact” sheets for each download can really help. I doubt if very many appraisers fill out all the data, such as address and date of sale, for each photo they take, particularly since you tend to take many more photos, including backup duplicates, when using digital photos. We only want to do it for the photos we are using today. When you write up your report, forms software that automatically transfers data, such as, date of sale and physical characteristics to your image catalog, can really help.

The ability to drag and drop photos from your thumbnail images can also be a time-saver.

Mapping

Appraisers use lots of maps, such as flood, earthquake, school districts, census tracts, streets, and planning and zoning.

Mapping seems to be the weak link in automating the appraisal reporting process. Street mapping programs are almost always out of date because they lack newly built streets. Annotating them is often a hassle.

Plat maps are even worse than street maps because of the wide range of data sources: paper map books, CD Rom, microfiche, etc. Some of the data sources are integrated with forms programs, but most are not.

Flood maps are another problem. Geocoded flood maps are available in only a few parts of the country (where you type in an address and the program finds the location), and few, if any, integrate with forms programs.

GIS (geographic information system) programs that could provide overlays are the ideal, particularly, if you can drag and drop the maps into your forms program.

Internal database management

Ever tried to find a comp (or subject) that you wanted to re-use but only remembered that it was a 3,500 square foot house in a certain city? Ever given up trying to find photos, and just re-took them? Photo database management would be very useful, when linked with database management.

The ability to search for subject and comp data by map code, neighborhood, date, square footage, lot size, etc., would help increase productivity (and save time digging through old files!). Standard database features, such as, wild cards, multiple category searches, and “greater or less than” would help.

Exporting your appraisal data into a standard database format such as, dBase is very useful. Then, you can search for data in any field, and can have your own customized database. Or, you can pull the data into a spreadsheet program, if you prefer.

My ideal forms software would have geocoded street, flood, zoning, and other maps linked to the software. The arrow for the subject would be automatically put on the map. The map would have sizing options, to fit it into where you wanted it on the page.

External database management

If your appraisal files are like mine, you have at least two sets of printouts from data sources, which you try to match up and reconcile. And, of course, I have to rekey all the data, which inevitably leads to typos, which, hopefully, my assistant catches and not my client’s reviewer!

Automatically transferring data from an external data service into an appraisal report really helps productivity. It is particularly useful when doing desktop appraisals and “value checks” or “comp runs”. You could transfer 10, 20, or more comps into your form, select the ones you want to use, and print out the results.

Comparing one data source to another on a screen can save time. Perhaps you want to use the square footage of the site from two public records data providers, the room count from the MLS, and the square footage from your local appraisers’ data co-op. You could pull up all four data sources on your screen, side by side, and select the data source you want for each field. You could cut and paste comments from the MLS for use in your appraisal, such as, about a remodeled kitchen. Your forms program would have a pop-up notepad or checklist so that you could record which data source you used.

My ideal software would let me import all the data fields (including text comments) from MLS, public records databases (i.e., Metroscan and Experian) from CD-ROM and online sources, and an appraisers’ co-op. My primary data source is MLS, so an external data software program that does not link with it is not very useful.

Office management

Many appraisers want to have their forms software link to a program that tracks their appraisals. They only want to enter data such as, client name, property address, fee, appraiser, etc., one time.

Features in management programs include:

  • Finding appraisals
  • Assigning appraisers
  • Tracking appraisals – appraiser and client
  • Paying appraisers
  • Accounts receivable management
  • Income tracking
  • Linking to an accounting program
  • Easy, customizable reporting
  • Manage non-form appraisals

Ever tried, and failed, to find an appraisal you knew you did sometime in the past six months so you could use the information in another appraisal? The ability to search by date, client, value, subject property description factors, etc., would really help.

The larger your appraisal firm, the more important is the ability to assign residential appraisers geographically. If you’re spending two hours on the road for each appraisal, your productivity is low. Assigning also requires the ability to track the status of appraisers’ assignments so that you don’t overload anyone.

If you pay your appraisers when you are paid, you will need a very good way of tracking accounts receivable and linking it to specified appraisers. If you pay appraisers when their work is completed, on a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis, knowing your payroll obligations can help with cash management.

Monitoring appraiser production by dollars billed and not yet billed, completion time, status of the appraisal, geographic area, etc., is important even if you only have one or two appraisers working for you. Even if you only have one appraiser, yourself, its amazing how easily you forget how long you have had an appraisal! When my office went to three full-time appraisers, I couldn’t have managed it without an appraiser/appraisal tracking program.

Which of your clients gives you the most work? Which clients are giving you more, or less work? What are your clients’ typical payment patterns? Who is now paying at 60 days, instead of 30 days? Who pays promptly, who is slow, and who is a real problem? Accounts receivable management is critical for all appraisal firms, whether your company has one-appraiser or 50-appraisers. Marketing to your best clients is important also.

Customizable reports are important. Even if your forms program gives you many reports, inevitably there is one that you really want, but can’t get.

If you want to use an accounting program for accounts receivable and income tracking, easy export to your accounting program will eliminate double entry of billing information.

Of course, all of the above functions can be handled by other accounting programs, a spreadsheet program, or a custom program. But many residential appraisal firms want to have their forms software provide these functions.

My ideal forms program would provide very easy exports to Quickbooks (my accounting program), full search capabilities to find appraisals, an excellent appraiser and appraisal tracking program, and customizable reporting.

Electronic transmission/EDI

EDI X12 (open system) is coming, with Fannie Mae’s pilot program in October, with production roll out planned for early 1998, and the Employee Relocation Council’s EC Consortium X12 EDI expected within the next year.

Most appraisers will be using transmission over the Internet, either via standard email or VANs. Having all of your appraisal report, including all photos and maps, can make this easier, especially if you are sending your appraisal as an email attachment.

When you need to have X12 EDI-capable software, all the major vendors will make sure you can send your files. “Add on” translation software has been available for some time.

Another transmission method is by using PDF (portable document format) files, using Adobe Acrobat. You send an image of your appraisal file as an email message. To do this you need Adobe Acrobat (under $200) and your software must allow printing to an Adobe Acrobat file. To read the file, your client just needs Adobe Acrobat Reader (free software). The photos can be printed in black and white or color.

My ideal forms software would have the ability to put all parts of the appraisal report into one file, or to keep them separate (i.e., form and photos). Printing to a PDF file would just take a few mouse clicks.

Ability to change forms and mix/match

Appraisals don’t always fit into the rigid format of appraisal forms, even when doing work for lenders. Forms software that allows you to alter a form would be a very useful feature for appraisers who do non-lender work or appraise non-standard properties. For example, forms such as, the 2000 review form don’t include sales comparison grids, which most appraisers use when changing a value.

You could always do a narrative report, of course, but that increases the time, and the cost to the client, and often is not necessary.

When doing non-lender work, I frequently want to change a form. For example, I don’t like to do a Cost Approach on a 100- year old home, but if I leave it out, there is a blank space on the URAR. I would like to use the 2055 form, but it has the words on the top of the first page “for lending purposes”. The URAR, and other lender forms, says that the effective date of the appraisal is the date of inspection, which, of course, is not correct on retrospective appraisals.

Since I am unable to modify my forms software, I frequently have to manually “strike out” the parts of the form that are unapplicable.

How to evaluate support

If support is important to you and/or you have to pay for it, as it is linked to upgrades, call the support line at different times to see how soon it is answered if you are looking for a new forms vendor.

Does the company offer different levels of support? Which one will work best for you? Is support via a toll or toll-free call?

Who answers the help line when you call? Is it someone who is very familiar with the program? Can you understand what the person is saying, or are they too technical? Is the person polite?

If you like email support, send a few messages and see what happens. Do the same with fax support.

Data transfer between forms

Easy transfer of data between forms is becoming more and more important. Maybe you’re doing a listing appraisal for the seller on a 2055 form, then do an appraisal for the buyer on a URAR. Or, you do a driveby on the 2055 form, and the client decides to get a URAR.

Pulling from the subject into such forms as a rent survey, or operating income and expense form (216), saves time and eliminates mistakes.

Windows vs. DOS (Ed. Note. For 1999, most vendors have relatively stable Windows forms software.)

Moving from DOS to the Windows environment has been tough for forms vendors. They are in a very limited market, and most have only one product: forms. Lots of time and money have been required to produce a Windows product. Only two vendors, Appraisal Partner and Bradford & Robbins, started with a Windows product.

Why not stay with DOS? To be honest, I still use a DOS program from Dynamic Computing. It runs fine on my old 386 computer, takes up very little hard disk space, and is very stable.

But the present and future of computing is the Windows environment. DOS is dying. We really don’t have a choice. There are many advantages, of course, to Windows forms programs because of the Windows operating system. Features such as, multiple windows and multitasking are great. And there are minuses, such as, requiring high powered computers, and less stability as compared with DOS.

All the major forms vendors have programs running under Windows 3.1, or are working on them. A few have (or will have) programs for Windows 95.

One unusual feature of almost all the Windows forms programs is that they are WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). In other words, they are an exact image of the form. The WYSIWYG programs can be hard to read as the forms must be shrunk to fit on the screen, width-wise. Most DOS forms programs are not, and fit well on the screen even when using a small monitor. That’s why many users prefer 17-inch monitors.

Backwards/sideways compatibility

When changing to a new forms software, appraisers don’t like to lose all their data, such as, subject, comps, neighborhoods, standard comments, and all other “boilerplate” type information. Backwards compatibility of forms templates and data when upgrading from DOS to Windows using the same software is almost mandatory.

Ability to automatically include all relevant data when doing an appraisal on one form, then filling out additional forms, such as, rent surveys, and transferring from a 2055 to a URAR, a URAR to an ERC (or the reverse) really saves time. Of course, a common comp and subject database is mandatory.

Some appraisers are using more than one forms software because clients require the use of specific software for electronic transmission. A common database that could be used by all the forms software is the ideal.

Other features

  • Good spelling checker for all forms, pull-down menus, standard comments, and text addenda
  • Can be viewed on a 14-inch monitor without eyestrain.
  • Customizable certification and limiting conditions.
  • Sortable pull down menus
  • Takes advantage of Windows features, such as, cut and paste
  • No compatibility problems with other programs on my computer.
  • No printer problems
  • Import MLS photos (when you encounter locked gates or illegal farming)
  • Letter and legal size output (very important for commercial appraisers)
  • ?? (Fill this in yourself!)

Size of your company

When there is only one producer (appraiser), productivity is extremely important. The more work you produce yourself, the more you make, because you get 100% of the fee.

Larger appraisal firms are concerned with production of all appraisers, as the more they produce, the more you make.

If you are networked, be sure to investigate which forms software works with your network.

If you use independent contractors, or your appraisers work from their homes, be sure there are no problems with multiple software installs.

Everything discussed above – automation of report production, fast search and retrieval of subject and comp data, efficient scheduling of appointments, etc., is important for every appraisal firm.

Where to get more information

I don’t know of any comparative reviews of forms software, or even recent reviews of specific brands. Appraisers tend to prefer the software they use, so it’s hard to get a comparison from talking with other appraisers, but you can find out what they think about the software they use. A good way is to join the AI forum automated mailing list on the Internet. A favorite topic is forms software.

Before upgrading to the Windows version of your current forms software, or switching to new software, be sure to talk with users of the software. Some products are stable now, some are not. Some have all the “add ons” you want available today, some are still working on them. If you like the software, but it is not stable now, or all the features are not fully operational, you can wait for the final version.
All the major forms software vendors have Web sites where you can download demo versions. Or, you can call them and request a demo. When appraisers call me for lists of forms vendors, I refer them to Real Estate Valuation or the Communicator, free publications sent quarterly to all licensed and certified appraisers. All the primary forms vendors advertise one or both of these publications. If you don’t have a copy of either of these publications, let me know, and I’ll fax you a list of vendors.