“Everyone you meet in real estate is here by accident,” opined appraiser Jonathan Miller, sitting in his many-monitored and very chilled office on West 38th Street several weeks ago. Mr. Miller stumbled into the business himself 29 years ago, rather improbably in the company of his sister, wife, parents and brother-in-law, who took to appraising the way that other families might take to vacationing in Boca Raton or raising cairn terriers. “Well, maybe not now,” he conceded. “It’s become such a spectator sport.”
If it has—and all signs point to yes—then Mr. Miller is the sport’s star commentator. Invariably affable and always willing to take reporters’ calls, he prides himself on being a “rescuer of bad pitches” and is the rare source who urges journalists to call his cell anytime. He actually means it, too: he once cheerfully chatted with me for a good 30 or 40 minutes on a Friday night about the upper Manhattan rental market before excusing himself—it was family pizza night and he had to go pick up dinner.
Appraising might not sound glamorous—New York magazine once likened a top appraiser’s status to being captain of the mathletes team—but hardly anyone in the industry gets as much ink as Mr. Miller. He estimates that he gets 20 to 30 press hits a week, in addition to blogging, writing a weekly housing market newsletter, and being a columnist for Curbed and Bloomberg View. He has 14,800 Twitter followers and puts out 80 market reports a year for Douglas Elliman, which are also used by the Federal Reserve. In an industry rife with boosters, he’s carved out an identity as a data geek who cares too much about the numbers to pretty up the truth.
“He’s taken appraisal, which is a boring… well, it’s not the most interesting thing in the world, and has become kind of like a little celebrity,” said Dottie Herman, president and CEO of Douglas Elliman. Mr. Miller started writing market reports for Elliman in the 1990s in exchange for access to its sales data, which was entirely private in the days before online public records and StreetEasy. “Jonathan really stands out. He really understands how to take numbers and explain them to people in a way that makes sense.”
And while the dated press clips that cover the walls of Mr. Miller’s office—which include which defunct publications like The New York Sun and photos from more than a decade ago in which Mr. Miller, now 54, bears a considerable resemblance to Tom Hanks (in fact, he still looks a bit like the actor in middle age)—might be taken as evidence of encroaching irrelevance (or youthful vanity) in any other office, in his case updating them simply got to be too much. He admitted that he’s even stopped archiving most of his blogs and online columns.
But as Mr. Miller’s star has risen, the status of real estate appraisers nationwide has plummeted. Tarnished in the wake of the housing crash and hollowed out by the well-intentioned but poorly designed regulations that followed, the number of appraisal licenses in the U.S. fell from 120,551 in 2008 to 99,024 in 2014, according to the appraisal subcommittee of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council; barring a major overhaul, the industry seems unlikely to recover. Which puts Mr. Miller, who first started blogging in the lead-up to the crash “to get the word out” about systemic conflicts of interest and ethical breaches, in the somewhat odd position of being the respected, ubiquitous and universally well-liked representative of a dying industry.
Growing up in Rehoboth Beach, Del., “the Hamptons of D.C.,” as he described it, Mr. Miller was not born and bred to real estate, but he did learn about running a business from his father, a serial entrepreneur who dabbled in hotels, a little development and at one point owned the largest McDonald’s franchise in the world.
Mr. Miller eventually ended up at Michigan State, which had the second best hotel management program in the country, only to discover that he had absolutely no passion for hotel management. “I hated it!” he exclaimed.
What he did have a passion for were numbers, which was clear to the managers at the industrial student bakery where he was employed; they whisked him away to work in the accounting department, though not before he met his wife, Cheryl, when they were both assigned to a 5:30 a.m. shift greasing doughnut trays.
As it happened, she had a taste for numbers herself, without which their relationship may have been doomed: their first date was at the library. “She thought I was kidding, but I said, ‘No, I have a paper to write,’ ” Mr. Miller recalled.
(Ms. Miller is now Miller Samuel’s CFO, and works from the Miller homestead in Darien, Conn., where the couple raised four boys, the youngest of which is now a senior in high school.)
After college, Mr. Miller worked as real estate broker in the Chicago suburbs, selling a house his first day on the job after a colleague asked him to field walk-ins while he ran out to grab lunch. “We joked that was a really expensive bag of fries,” Mr. Miller recalled.
Staying in Manhattan for a friend’s wedding one weekend, the Millers decided on a whim to quit their jobs and move. Soon Mr. Miller’s sister Dina, now the company’s COO, was also working in the city as a real estate agent, as was her (now ex-) husband (he is the Samuel of Miller Samuel, though he no longer has a stake in the firm, which has been owned by Jonathan, Cheryl and Dina since their parents retired).
“My brother-in-law, my dad and me, we’re geeks,” Mr. Miller said, picking up the calculator on his desk. “This is a HP12C. There’s a bigger one, a 41C, and back then we took the entire offering plan of Astor Terrace”—a Yorkville condo—“and put all the prices in it through bitmap, so it was like a handheld,” he continued. “I mean, you could get all the numbers by walking down to the sales office. So it was sort of… just like a fun thing.”
Which goes a long way explaining Mr. Miller’s power niche in the high-gloss world of Manhattan real estate—he not only loves the nitty-gritty numbers side of the business, but he’s sure that you will, too. And amazingly, when he’s the one doing the explaining, it’s often true.
“I have to say, the guy has fun, that enthusiasm comes through,” said John Cicero, who partnered with Miller Samuel 13 years ago to do commercial appraisals. “I’ll often pop into his office and he’ll be all giddy and excited, he’ll say, ‘Let me show you this new graph.’ He’s always playing with charts and graphs and sparklines—I didn’t even know what a sparkline was until he showed me in Excel. He’s a data nerd.”
Yet Mr. Miller came across his métier more or less by accident. His wife and sister, successful real estate agents, had gradually added appraising to their repertoire, bringing Jonathan and Miller mére and pére into the trade. But no one had thought about making a career out of it, and in the mid-’80s they found Japanese backers to help them open a real estate brokerage.
“We were ready to go, and all kind of looked at each other like, ‘eh, we’ve done that,’ ” Mr. Miller recalled. Instead, they went in together on Miller Samuel in 1986.
At the time, appraisal was a fairly opaque business. Comps, the foundation of the appraisal process, were frequently based on murky facts and hearsay, Mr. Miller said, with many appraisers working off floor plans instead of the wealth of information about similar sales that is widely available today. Miller Samuel made it a point to drill down on facts—coaxing exact figures out of brokers and keeping meticulous records, earning many fans and developing an encyclopedic database in the process that has helped them remain relevant in a far more open era.
“He’s the go-to guy for closed information and if you’re doing a high-end appraisal like a divorce, he’s very often the neutral party that both sides agree to hire,” said Donna Olshan of the eponymous brokerage. “He’s a complete pro, a shining star in the real estate industry. I think he’s more relevant than Case-Shiller.”
“I would love to see him go nationwide,” gushed Elizabeth Ann Stribling-Kivlan, the president of Stribling & Associates, who described him as “one of the most important people in real estate.
“As many real estate agents as we have in New York, we would not be as good without him,” she added.
It was not the most recent real estate bust, but the boom that preceded it, which motivated Mr. Miller to start blogging and writing in earnest—a move that was less about finding his voice, than amplifying it. “I always say Jonathan never met a microphone he didn’t like,” said his sister Dina. “He was always like that since he was little. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.”
With huge sums of money to be made in the housing boom, many mortgage brokers sought out appraisers willing to rubber-stamp paperwork with whatever inflated sum they wanted. The practice went largely unchecked, as most banks had laid off the in-house appraisal departments that might have raised a red flag. It didn’t help that trade groups, which might have intervened, had largely faded into irrelevance years earlier.
Mr. Miller said he routinely fielded such calls and emails from such mortgage brokers back then—one request even landed in his inbox while he was on the phone with then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office talking about unethical appraisal practices.
“We would get calls—‘They need it to come in at a million-two, will it come in around that?’ And we’d say, ‘It will come in at market value.’ And they’d say, ‘O.K., I’ll call around to some other appraisers,’ ” he said. “They’d never tell you they wouldn’t use you again if you didn’t do it, you’d just never get another call. I thought, ‘I’m going to be out of business.’ ”
As a result, Miller Samuel rejiggered the firm in the mid-aughts to minimize retail bank appraisal work and focus on more lucrative but scattershot work for divorces, estates and expert testimony, which now accounts for about 75 percent of its business, and “every year since has been a record year for my firm,” said Mr. Miller.
It proved a particularly fortuitous move a few years later when regulations intended to stop collusion between mortgage brokers and appraisers inadvertently disemboweled the industry. Eventually incorporated into Dodd-Frank, the rules prevented banks from hiring appraisers directly and revived largely moribund institutions known as Appraisal Management Companies, or AMCs, which take as much as a 50 percent cut of appraisal fees. The result, numerous appraisers say, has been a rapid diminishment in the quality of appraisals and an effective end to mentorship; stories abound of appraisers driving down from Albany or Schenectady to check out 10 or 12 Manhattan properties in a single day.
And as many out-of-town appraisers are unfamiliar with the quick shifts in local markets, they often have a low bias, which is as bad as a high one in some ways—in either case, the banks don’t get accurate reads on the markets they’re lending in. Naturally, they also induce panic in brokers.
“Every broker now looks for area code,” said Steven Knobel, the co-founder of appraisal firm Mitchell, Maxwell & Jackson, now MMJ, which at its peak in 2007 employed some 150 people and now has only two. “When they see a 518 to do a Park Avenue appraisal, they get nervous like a long-tailed cat in a rocking chair factory.”
Michael Vargas, the co-founder of Vanderbilt Appraisal, said that residential mortgage work used to be about 90 percent of his business. “But for a long time, there were very few residential mortgages, and then when they started to make a comeback, we were required to work through AMCs and we decline a lot of work from them because of the quick turnaround deadlines. And our minimum fee is mostly higher than they’re willing to pay.”
“For any business owner, you have to find a way to market your services and diversify,” he continued. “I think at the outset Jonathan was at the forefront, starting with market reports and blogging and expanding territories.”
Even Mr. Miller’s competitors admit, a bit ruefully, that they have nothing bad to say about him.
“I think he’s a great guy, though what he does, I do not think it translates well to an industry,” said Mr. Knobel, expressing doubts about whether Mr. Miller’s model was one that might be adopted more widely. “You don’t make any money blogging.”
With so much time taken up by market reports and being “an envoy, or ombudsman” for the industry, as one of his colleagues put it, Mr. Miller only does a fraction of the appraisal work he once did—one or two a month instead of one or two a day. (The two firms employ a couple dozen appraisers, with an average of 17 years of experience, between the residential and commercial sides.)
Now, he mostly does complicated or unusual assessments, like calculating the value of an un-renovated rooftop, dumbwaiter shaft or chunk of a co-op hallway that a resident wants to annex to their apartment. That, and the highest of the high-end properties. Though he misses the variety of the old days.
“You get to see extremes,” he explained, describing an afternoon in which he’d gone to a one-bedroom in Chinatown that he’d been told “needed a little work.” When he arrived he found out that the senile owner, since deceased, had smeared the walls with feces, kept coops with live chickens inside the apartment and cordoned the couch off with four-foot-tall towers built out of old Marlboro cigarette packs. An hour and a half later, he was in an Upper East Side townhouse that called to mind Versailles.
“There isn’t an hour of TV where there isn’t someone we’ve appraised or met. That’s really cool,” he enthused. “I’ve been in 18,000-square-foot condos. I’ve been in 160-square-foot condos. Doing appraising is walking around the city and seeing interesting spaces, then you get to go figure out what they’re worth.”
It’s an enthusiasm that extends beyond real estate—on the afternoon we visited, the Tour de France was playing on one of the numerous screens on Mr. Miller’s wraparound desk. “I used to have a bike as a kid that I would just stare it, it was so simple and brilliant,” he said. In 1976, he biked across the country as a teenager with a group celebrating the “Bike-centennial,” a history-cum-bicycling celebration. He’s also fond of juggling and yo-yos.
“He’s kind of quirky, he has a great sense of humor, a great sense of fun,” said Ms. Herman. “I used to tell him he looks like a neon sign because he loves to wear orange.”
That the Jonathan Miller model is, in a lot of ways, unique to Jonathan Miller himself, rather than broadly applicable to the appraisal industry, which he describes as “dying, literally,” is something that he readily admits
“I’m 54 and, I’ve always been about the average age, and no matter what I do, I’m always going to be the average age,” Mr. Miller continued. He just hopes that if he can continue conveying how great appraising is, or at least has the potential to be, people inside and outside of the industry will fight to preserve it.
“I mean, I don’t want to sugarcoat it, but it’s really fun,” he said.