What to Look for When Seeking a Qualified Personal Property Appraiser

By Courtney Ahlstrom Christy

When someone asks me what I do for a living, I sometimes describe myself as an object social worker. Like attorneys, appraisers are often called upon during times of emotional upheaval. In the appraisal field, we call them the four D’s: death, debt, divorce, and downsizing. Selecting a qualified appraiser can alleviate the situation by providing a professional opinion on the value of items that often have deep meaning for the owner. An appraisal report provides useful information that can impact how the property is viewed and treated. However, not all appraisers are created equal, and it behooves the individual to engage a qualified professional who conducts proper research, follows current methodology, and objectively reports the value conclusions.

What is a Personal Property Appraiser?

The Appraisal Foundation Board defines an appraisal as “the act or process of developing an opinion of value.” Therefore, an appraiser is a valuation expert who develops reports that provide property value conclusions in a given situation. Simply put, an appraiser answers the question “What’s it worth?” And the proper response is always influenced by context. A few common reasons to hire an appraiser may be estate planning, estate tax, gift tax, noncash charitable contribution, equitable distribution, insurance coverage or a damage/loss claim.

There are several different types of appraisers including real estate (or real property), personal property and business. The term “personal property” encompasses all tangible property such as furnishings, antiques, fine art, jewelry, collectibles and even machinery. Personal property appraisers develop expertise in particular categories that often relate to one another. I have yet to encounter an individual who values both tractors and gems. For the purposes of this article, the word “appraiser” signifies a personal property appraiser as opposed to business or real estate.

In addition to the different types of appraisers and intended uses, another significant concept in the field of appraising is that there is more than one type of value. The same item may have several different values depending on factors like timeframe to purchase/sell and appropriate market levels. For example, the insurance replacement cost of an eighteenth century Chippendale chair at retail may be significantly different than its resale value at auction. A qualified furniture appraiser should be able to determine the correct kind of value to use after discussing the scope of the assignment with the client.

USPAP Compliance

There are no licenses for personal property appraisers. Unlike real estate, no governmental agencies regulate personal property appraisal practices. Technically, anyone can claim to be a personal property appraiser. If an appraiser does mention having a license, it may be in reference to another aspect of his or her business such as auctioneering.

The closest form of regulation that an appraiser may opt to adhere to is the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP). Adopted by Congress in 1989, USPAP as set forth by The Appraisal Foundation is the widely recognized ethical and performance standard for the appraisal profession in the United States. To become compliant, an appraiser is required to take a fifteen-hour course followed by five-hour update courses every two years. However, not all appraisers or firms providing appraisals are USPAP compliant. If an appraisal report will be filed with the IRS or has the potential to be used in court, it often benefits the client to select an appraiser who follows USPAP. In fact, current President of The Appraisal Foundation David S. Bunton recently stated, “For the past three decades USPAP has become deeply embedded in our legal and regulatory system.”

How is the Word “Certified” Used?

The way that appraisers use the word certified when describing their qualifications can be revealing. While you can be certified by an appraisal society or organization, you cannot be “USPAP certified.” The appropriate description should be something similar to “USPAP compliant,” “in compliance with USPAP,” or “adhering to USPAP guidelines.” The use of the phrase “USPAP certified” is an indication that the appraiser is not paying attention to The Appraisal Foundation rules nor understanding nuance, an important quality in an appraiser.

The word “certified” is used correctly when describing an appraiser’s credentials, often in association with a professional appraisal organization. The three largest associations for personal property appraisers are the International Society of Appraisers (ISA), Appraisers Association of America (AAA) and American Society of Appraisers (ASA). These groups require their members to be compliant with USPAP as well as maintain their own specific standards. In addition to testing, continuing education and demonstration of appraisal experience, members usually must requalify every five years to maintain their accreditation. For instance, you can be an ISA Certified Member, an ISA Accredited Member, or an ISA Member—with certified being the most rigorous level to achieve.

It is also important to check that the appraiser is up-to-date with both USPAP and any organizational membership. You may be surprised to discover the number of individuals who claim to be in good standing yet have not maintained their continuing requirements. An appraiser’s status can usually be verified by contacting the appraisal society or searching the online directory.

How Does the IRS Define a “QualifiedAppraiser”?

When filing an 8283 form for noncash charitable contribution, the IRS requires the appraisal report to be performed by a qualified appraiser for deductions of $5,000 or more. Instructions for Form 8283 (see Part III, Declaration of Appraiser) describe the requirements that must be met by the appraiser:

  • A Qualified Appraiser has earned a professional designation from a recognized professional appraiser organization for demonstrated competency in valuing the type of property being appraised, or has met certain minimum education and experience requirements.
  • The individual regularly prepares appraisals for which he or she is
  • The individual demonstrates verifiable education and experience in valuing the type of property being appraised.
  • The individual has not been prohibited from practicing before the IRS under section 330(c) of title 31 of the United States Code at any time during the three-year period ending on the date of the

In addition, the IRS has recently issued a new rule entitled “Substantiation and Reporting Requirements for Cash and Noncash Charitable Contribution Deductions” that specifically cites USPAP. As stated in Section III (B) of the rule, appraisals are to be performed by a qualified appraiser according to the “substance and principles of the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice [USPAP] as developed by the Appraisal Standards Board of the Appraisal Foundation.” Effective July 30, 2018, this clarification pertains to charitable contributions of all property types.

The goal of these requirements is to help people chose appraisers who are professional, competent and objective. While these regulations currently address only donation appraisals, there is a strong possibility that it will be expanded to cover all appraisals prepared for federal tax claim purposes.

Education and Experience

Often a good indication of competency is the appraiser’s education and experience. A combination of coursework in both connoisseurship and appraisal methodology provides a strong foundation for the appraisal profession. The appraiser may have taken classes from an appraisal society, attended subject-related seminars, and/or obtained a university degree relevant to the field. In addition to ongoing learning, an appraiser’s work experience demonstrates exposure to handling property and an understanding of market dynamics. Past roles may have been at an auction house, a museum, a gallery, an estate sales agency, etc. It is often interesting to learn about the path that leads individuals to a career in appraising with no two stories exactly alike. It can be a musician-turned- guitar appraiser or a former fashion editor who values Victorian clothing. You can usually discover an appraiser’s background by either visiting the business website or requesting his or her curriculum vitae.

Generalist versus Specialist

When researching your options for an appraiser, look for a professional who either has the necessary knowledge about the property to be valued or is able to collaborate with someone who does. Appraisers are usually divided into two kinds: generalists and specialists (even though there is often overlap). A generalist has working knowledge in a wide range of subjects while a specialist has deep knowledge in a specific field.

When it comes to valuing a household full of contents, it is unlikely that a client can afford to hire specialists for every type of property. While in an ideal world it would be nice to enlist several niche experts, the reality is often cost prohibitive. This is when a generalist comes in handy. A good generalist will be able to handle a variety of items and use discernment to know when a specialist should be consulted. Take caution if an individual claims to be an expert in everything and feels there is never the need to seek a professional second opinion. Most generalists work with a network of specialists and fellow appraisers to provide an accurate evaluation.

If you have a specific type of collection that needs to be appraised, consider a specialist. I once had a call from a woman whose husband had a warehouse devoted to the storage of vintage model train sets and associated ephemera. In her instance, a vintage toy specialist with expertise in model trains was her best option. However, sometimes specialists don’t live geographically close to the property, and the client may have to pay travel expenses. Alternatively, a local qualified generalist can consult with a faraway specialist by taking useful inspection notes and images needed for evaluation.

Appraisers are Not Authenticators

Being an appraiser is not equivalent to the role of authenticator. A competent appraiser will evaluate an object and communicate whether further authentication is needed. Authentication is the formal process of proving a piece to be genuine. Steps may include researching provenance, checking the catalogue raisonné, forensic material analysis, and/or foundation review. Such lengthy measures are usually taken for items that may have significantly high value where there may be issues surrounding attribution or ownership history.

An authenticator for a particular work or object requires not only specialized expertise, but must also be considered the recognized authority on the matter. The accepted authority can be an individual, a foundation, or sometimes an artist’s estate. As you can imagine, having a website declaring to be the sole expert on Picasso doesn’t mean he or she is. A similar caution should be taken when trusting certificates of authenticity. This is especially true for artwork purchased on cruise ships; I am constantly the bearer of bad news for Salvador Dali prints bought while in the Caribbean. Qualified appraisers should be able to suggest authentication options and possibly assist you through the verification process.

Independent and Objective

A qualified appraiser will provide an independent and objective opinion of value. An appraiser’s role is to remain impartial to the outcome and the parties involved. If there is any potential conflict of interest, it must be immediately disclosed to the client. In the instance of a divorce, the appraiser does not act as an advocate on anyone’s behalf even if hired by only one side. This ethical duty to remain unbiased is paramount to the development of a credible appraisal report.

Many appraisers also provide additional services such as consultation, brokering and estate liquidation. These other roles are separate activities and should not occur during the appraisal process. It is common to hear that appraisers wear many “hats,” and which hat is being donned should be made very clear to the client.

Galleries and auction houses can also have appraisal departments. There is ongoing debate as to whether there is an inherent bias because the main focus of these businesses is to sell and receive commissions. It all depends on who you are working with, but pay attention to how they treat the appraisal process. Is it delineated from consignment proposals or offers to buy? If the appraiser starts to mention selling while the appraisal is still in process, be wary. Once an appraisal is concluded and you have received the final report, then a new discussion about possible de-acquisition can begin.

How Do They Charge for Their Services?

Like any professional, qualified appraisers have worked hard to gain the skills to value property and will charge appropriately for their services. On average, professional appraiser fees are between $100 and $400 per hour depending on the type of project. Expert witness and litigation services are often at a higher price. It is unethical to charge a percentage of the value of items being appraised. Compensation should be based a flat rate that is hourly, daily, per item (for jewelry), or a negotiated project fee. You can usually ask the appraiser for the fee structure at the beginning of the assignment. And many will provide an estimated quote before beginning the assignment.

Like any other circumstance, you usually get what you pay for. Something offered as a free “appraisal” is more likely to be a valuation sales tool. Free appraisals often come in a one-page format. Be very suspect of treating these documents as appraisal reports. Unlike some sales proposals or gallery receipts, the information required in a qualified appraisal report cannot all fit on a single page. A one-sheet valuation may also be an indication that it is only a portion of the complete report. The pagination should indicate the total number of pages there are in the document.

Despite the quick turnarounds presented on several reality television shows, a qualified appraisal does not occur on the spot. Rather, it takes time to inspect the property, research the market, analyze findings and develop a value conclusion. We’re appraisers, not psychics.

In Conclusion

Common sense and due diligence goes a long way when seeking a qualified appraiser. A good starting point when looking for an appraiser is to check the ISA, AAA, and ASA online appraiser directories; you can search by either location or category. A few initial questions to ask when speaking with an appraiser include the following:

  • Can the appraiser provide a CV which includes formal training in a given field and appraisal methodology?
  • Is the appraiser compliant with USPAP? And has the most recent update course been taken within two years?
  • What is the appraiser’s experience in handling a particular category of property? Do they work with specialists when needed?
  • Are they members of any professional organizations? If so, at what level?
  • What is the fee structure? Do they charge by the hour, day, or project?
  • Can they provide the report within your timeframe?

What will always ring true is that appraisers are passionate about that which they value. This enthusiasm combined with knowledge, experience, and ethics is what makes a qualified appraiser worth engaging.

Courtney Ahlstrom Christy is a fine and decorative arts appraiser based in Atlanta. Her interest in offering valuation services tailored to each client’s needs led to establishing Ahlstrom Appraisals LLC, a firm that provides appraisals and consultations throughout the American Southeast. As an ISA Certified Member, an AAA Accredited Member, and USPAP compliant, Christy is involved in a professional community that seeks higher standards and ongoing inquiry into how to best value personal property.