Somebody is Taking Pictures of My House! by Barry Vincent, Broker

In a recent Facebook post, one of our Southeast Nashville neighbors reported that a strange man had just driven up and down her street taking pictures of her house. Had anyone else seen anything like this and why would he do this?

Several posters chimed in to report that they had seen something similar at some time in the past and others offered their conspiratorial conjectures about the picture-takers likely mischief.

I offered a brief explanation, based on my own experience, about why he may have been taking those pictures. It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to offer a more detailed explanation here and maybe ease some of the worries you have when you see someone taking pictures on your street.

Financial institutions keep tabs on their money. If you have a mortgage, homeowner’s insurance, or pay taxes, somebody will occasionally take pictures of your house. Also, if you bought your house within the last year it may be used as a “comp” for sales that are taking place nearby. Comp is real estate speak for comparable. An estimate of a property’s value is determined by comparing it to what similar properties in the area have sold for in the past year.

Banks, mortgage lenders, and insurance companies are not going to put thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars, at risk, some of it for as long as 30 years, and say, “Okay, we’ve made that loan (or issued that insurance policy), hope things go well there.” No, they have someone check on it from time to time and send them pictures.

Who does these inspections and takes the pictures?

The Metro Nashville/Davidson County tax assessor is required to review and reassess property taxes every four years. Someone from the tax assessor’s office visits every property in the county during each four-year period–and takes at least a front picture of the house. Go to the property assessors website and you can see the most recent picture.

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Financial institutions have a system for these ongoing property inspections and evaluations.

The financial institutions contract with companies called valuation companies, that provide this service. The valuation companies, in turn, have relationships with real estate agents and appraisers across the country. These are agents and appraisers they have vetted and, in many cases, run background checks on.

A financial institution places an order with a valuation company for an inspection with instructions for what they want in the report. The valuation company then sends that order out to one of their affiliated inspectors who does the inspection, takes the pictures and submits the report.

Why bother if the payments are being made on time? A lender or insurer may want to review the status of a property for many reasons.

They may be doing a routine check on properties on which they have a mortgage or insurance.

Mortgages are negotiable securities. They are bought and sold like stocks and bonds. One company may be in talks to buy ten million dollars’ worth of mortgages from another company. That buyer pulls a sample of the properties in that batch of securities and asks a valuation company to inspect those properties to ensure they are buying what they think they are buying.

What could possibly go wrong?

Some years ago I was sent to inspect a rural property in western Williamson County. House numbers are often few and far between in rural areas. I drove back and forth trying to find that address. Frustrated, I pulled over on the side of the road to review my instructions and figure out what to do next. Stopped, I could see the outlines of a foundation and the remains of a burned out house in the weeds right where the address told me I should see a house. I don’t know why the company had ordered that inspection. Inspectors seldom know the reason for an inspection. Maybe they already knew about the fire and were sending me to verify it. Anyway, they got their pictures of the vacant lot and what remained after the fire.

On another inspection in Antioch, I pulled up to the front of a newer, 2-story house. The lawn and landscaping were well maintained. The house appeared to be in perfect condition but, when I pulled around to get a picture of the left side of the house, I could see the back of it was completely burned out.

After the 2010 floods in Middle Tennessee, inspections were ordered by the hundreds. Companies heard about the flooding and wanted to assess and track their risks. Many flooded houses were not in a floodplain.

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If things are rocking along and the payments are showing up on time, inspections are probably infrequent. Each company has its procedures and schedules. But if you miss a payment, the first thing a mortgage servicer does is order an inspection. Is the lawn mowed, shrubbery trimmed, everything neat and well maintained, or does it show “deferred maintenance?” Does it look abandoned? That property will be tracked closely, probably every 30 days, until payments are up-to-date or foreclosure is completed.

If you are a neighbor and the property is abandoned, you should welcome the inspection because the lender will move more quickly to begin basic maintenance to keep the property from becoming overgrown and damaged.

Nell and I have done these reports for years. An inspection report may require only one or two pictures and a short checklist about the appearance of the house and the neighborhood. The most common report is more detailed and is called a broker price opinion (BPO). A BPO typically requires six pictures, front, house number (if there is no house number then the two closest numbers on each side of the subject property), both sides and pictures down the street in both directions. BPO’s require information on the condition of the house, comments about the neighborhood, comments on the local market conditions and an estimated value based on current listings and recent sales in the area.

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There are some simple rules for inspectors. Stay on public property, don’t go on private property, Don’t take pictures with people in them. Don’t discuss what you are doing with anybody.

So, be a good neighbor. Watch out for your neighborhood and if you see anything suspicious, call the police. But if it is someone taking a few pictures from their car, it is probably just a financial institution checking up on a property where they have some financial interest or potential liability.