With fewer homes being sold, home appraisers have to travel far and wide to ply their trade. In the process, their work may not be up to your standards. Here are five “keys” to knowing whether it’s time to hire a new home appraiser.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than three out of 10 domestic home appraisers were self-employed, while most salaried assessors worked primarily in local government and for real estate firms. Lately, real estate appraisal firms have popped up on the scene, leading realtors to outsource appraisal work to such companies. Yet appraisal fees are in free fall as a result of the flailing economy.

Home appraisers don’t make a huge amount of money, either. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the median annual earnings of wage and salary appraisers and assessors of real estate was $44,460 in May 2006 (the most recent measurement by the Bureau). The middle 50% earned between $32,080 and $64,460.

Unfortunately, with the downturn in the real estate market, and with big layoffs at real estate firms, fewer and fewer home appraisers are being forced to cover more ground. With the field stretched thinner, U.S. home sellers may wind up with a raw deal if the appraiser rushes through the job, or misses key criteria because they’re overworked.

Further complicating matters are new regulatory codes from Fannie Mae (Stock Quote: FNM) and Freddie Mac (Stock Quote: FRE) that make it a tougher, longer process to thoroughly appraise a home.

But how would you know that an appraiser wasn’t operating on all cylinders? There could be lots of reasons, but these red flags would likely be at the top of the list.

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How far did your appraiser travel to appraise your home? At first glance, this seems like an innocuous issue. After all, who cares how far the appraiser travels? But a closer look reveals some key issues. As a home seller, you want an appraiser who knows your community, and knows your neighborhood, to earn the maximum appraisal on your home. But an overworked, fatigued appraiser who drives 80 miles to your home hasn’t spent time in your neck of the woods, and may not care about the community and neighborhood make-up. The appraiser's final evaluation may reflect that fact.

Doesn’t ask about upgrades and repairs. You may have a put a lot of work into your home recently, and you want those improvements reflected in your home appraisal. But if your appraiser doesn’t ask about the new double-hung windows, or the new $8,000 heat/hot water system, those improvements may not wind up in your final estimate.

Doesn’t use up-to-date comparable numbers as a benchmark. If appraisers aren’t familiar with your neighborhood, they’ll invariable rely on dated comparable sales, which, in a declining real estate market, can be a sure fire way to reduce the value of your home. Make sure to ask when those numbers have been updated, and whether or not the appraiser is using the most-recent comparables for your community and neighborhood.

Overworked appraisers may also try to cut corners by using comparable real estate numbers from outside of your community. But “outside” numbers can translate into a significant, downward swing in your final appraisal. So, make sure to ask the appraiser which neighborhood is being used for the “comparables.”

Also, make sure your appraiser is using the Multiple Listing Service as a primary data source. Some appraisers may say they’re using the MLS data sources, but check and make sure they do. The MLS offers some of the best comparable data on the value of your home, based on price and home conditions in your particular area.

Working with an overworked, underpaid home appraiser isn’t easy. But there’s a lot at stake in your home’s final sales value, so be ready to spot the signs of a lousy appraisal when you see one — and make sure to call the appraiser on it before it’s too late.

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