The Measure of a Profession: On the Values of Appraisal

September 20, 2022

By: Rachel L. Richardson

With a passion for the profession of appraisal, Joshua Wood, MAI, JD, and Senior Managing Director with the Houston office, delivered a Val-Talk presentation this year, discussing his research into the history of appraisal as a profession and its importance at this moment.

As someone who “became an appraiser by accident,” Wood describes in a later interview how he came to understand the nature of the profession and its role as a calling in his own life. “As I came to understand what appraisal is all about,” he shared, “it occurred to me that it is a very important thing for our society.”

So, why does it matter?

Appraisal as the Profession of Property

To begin, Wood discussed the nature of profession itself. “Professions,” he says, “are about caring.” And professionals “work in areas of great human importance.” More than a mere job, or a tier of employment, he says, professions involve a special privilege, a right to specialize and gain expert knowledge, that professionals might apply that knowledge in the interest of the public.

Wood’s awareness of what makes a profession different from a “job” or “career,” came from The Future of the Professions, by the father and son team Richard and Daniel Susskinds. Professions, they write, involve specialist knowledge, admission based on credentials, regulation of activities, and a common set of values. But care of what, Wood asks? Traditional examples of the professions (doctors, clergy, and lawyers) take care of your physical body, your spirit, and your legal self—but what do appraisers take care of?

“Appraisal,” Wood says, beginning an answer, “is the profession of property which is an ethereal concept that even predates language.” So, appraisers “care for people in that particular aspect of their lives.”

Why Does Property Need Appraisers?

Property is not really the lawyer’s domain, Wood argues, though they do learn about the subject. Since lawyers need to know about so many other facets of law, they cannot truly spend enough time and focus on this single realm. Property’s complexity lies in the fact that it transcends the physical land and involves rights—rights which can themselves involve a long history of written agreements, fashioned in a plethora of ways. Moreover, there is no “predefined list” of what is included in a property owner’s so-called ‘bundle of rights.’ In this way, property encompasses the infinite ways we may make use of what we own.

“Property,” Wood says, “is so deeply historical, inextricably tied to the past. And society needs property to function.”

In the context of society, Wood says, having property raises the question: how is it going to be concentrated or dispersed? “Property is ownership, and ownership is power. The very notion of property is a defense against totalitarianism, genocide.”

Wood shared a graph of the World GDP for the past 2,000 years, which showed exponential growth since the 1600s. Property as we know it, real property (as rights that can be vindicated in court) did not exist in the Middle Ages, Wood remarks, so it’s not surprising that appraisal did not begin in the Middle Ages when the universities began to train people in the classic professions.

“One of the reasons that appraisal feels so new,” Wood remarks, “is that property in the magnitude that we’re looking at is so recent, and the implications are critical.”

“Today, because of this extraordinary growth in property, because of the growth in unequal distribution of wealth, the concept of property—the concept that people should have private property—is under attack in a way it’s never been before. And the need for property experts to lead in this area has never been as great as it is now.”

Who are Called to Be the Appraisers?

Professions require a specific set of gifts, talents, and passions. Since they are about care, they require a calling.

So, what are the talents and values associated with appraising? What is the mindset needed to do it well?

Wood begins to answer these questions by referring to the central idea in Julia Galef’s book, The Scout Mindset. With this outlook, the “scout mindset,” Galef maintains, we can set aside what we wish to be the case, and rather make decisions based on the evidence before us.

The opposite of advocacy and motivated reasoning, the scout mindset requires objectivity and impartiality. This impartiality, Wood notes, can be a particular challenge, since in most other professions their “highest call” is to be “an advocate for their client,” yet appraisers must remain neutral to their client’s position.

This element of the profession—neutrality—was championed by none other than Winston Churchill, Wood notes, referring to a foreword he wrote for the 1950’s publication of The Chartered Surveyor by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) who, in the British system work with building, valuing, and selling property.

“A love of justice and equity,” Churchill writes, “and a firm resolve to deal with every issue on its true merits without fear, favour or affection are inseparable from the rightful discharge of a surveyor’s duty.” Acknowledging this is not easy, he adds, “Let us hope that [surveyors] fortify themselves for their task by a strong and healthy esprit de corps so as to win for themselves an ever-increasing measure of the confidence of the public and the honour that comes from doing right things well.”

Churchill’s emphasis on the “confidence of the public,” is mirrored by the concept of the “public trust” in the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice in the United States. Appraisers build public trust, Wood says, by investing in their credibility (which includes conceding mistakes as they are made) and by maintaining neutrality, and impartiality.

Thus, appraisal, as rooted in the deeper history of the surveyors, is the profession of impartiality—impartiality in the service of justice and equity. This essence of equity is present in the RICS motto: Est modus in rebus, which means “there is balance in [all] things” and “there is measure in things.”

Epieikeia: The Principle of Appraising

At the heart of this balance—the impartial measure of justice—is equity, Wood shares. Equity, he adds, has its roots in a Greek term, επιείκεια (epēˌīˈkīə), which can be translated “sweet reasonableness.”

Epieikeia transcends the letter of the law, and rather carries out its spirit. “It reflects the understanding of tradition, the understanding of purpose, and the application of practical reasoning to it,” Wood adds. “On top of that, ‘epieikeia’ is fun to say and it sounds to me like something Bruce Willis might have said in Die Hard if he’d been an appraiser rather than a cop.”

This need for equity and impartiality was even present, Wood finds, in one of the earliest statements of law in the US: The Book of the General Lauues and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of the Massachusets, from the 1640s. Though there were fewer than 10,000 colonists living there at the time, they codified the need for “‘apprizement of indifferent men’” for determining a fair exchange. “The colonists at the very founding of the country,” Wood says, “found ‘apprizement’ to be so central to the harmonious operation of their society that they included it in their laws.”

Who are the Appraiser Heroes?

When he began his research, Wood had wondered: Who are the heroes in the profession of appraisal? “It’s not hard to think of heroes for many professions,” Wood says, “but nobody can think of an appraiser hero, and I want to change that.”

Delving into the history of the surveyor, Wood found his answer.

“If we think of appraisal as the profession of measurement and neutrality,” Wood adds, “then our heroes are not hard to see.” In fact, three of the four people depicted on Mount Rushmore were surveyors. “Our founding fathers are founding surveyors. Not just any three of our presidents, but three of the most highly revered presidents this country has ever had: Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington.”

In keeping with the values of the surveyor, Jefferson, Wood notes, penned this statement in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Incidentally, Wood adds, the “pursuit of happiness” was a substitute from John Locke’s formation, “life, liberty, and property.”

“So, if we substitute in ‘pursuit of happiness’ for ‘property,’” Wood remarks, “then we can say appraisal is the profession of the pursuit of happiness.”

“In addition to Jefferson,” Wood continued, “we have Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, who said, ‘As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,’ a truly wonderful, brief statement of equity. And then Washington, of course, an Independent. (He was not a member of a political party.) And in his farewell address he pushed for neutrality, impartiality, and common values among people of the country.”

“These are our champions of measurement,” says Wood. “These are our paragons of equity.”

“As defenders of property, appraisers—or should I say surveyors—have such an important role,” Wood says. “Professionals are caregivers, and the public needs help more than ever. The public is confused, mistrusting, suspicious, overwhelmed, disconnected, and divided. The leading narratives of the day encourage us to put ourselves into adversarial camps, and to be cynical—to select the most unfavorable interpretation of someone else’s motives. But the proper role of the surveyor is to see things as they are, and to advise. To be a critic in the best sense of the word. To make judgments. And happy, ordered society depends on clear, firm judgment grounded in commonly accepted principles. This is our place. This is epieikeia—true equity, sweet reasonableness, justice-beyond-justice.”

A Hero’s Oath

In a closing statement, Wood shared this as a kind of benediction for his fellow ‘surveyors’:

“WHERAS you are chosen Apprizers of such lands or goods as are now to be presented to you, you doe heer swear by the Living God, that all partialitie, prejudice and other sinister respects layd aside, you shall apprize the same, and everie part therof, according to the true and just value therof at this present, by common account, by your best judgement and conscience. So help you God &c:”

—”The Oath of the Apprizer” from The Book of the General Lauues and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of the Massachusetts, 1647

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