What happens when a former golf pro decides to change gears … and become not just an appraiser, but an expert witness appraiser? What happens is Graham D. Smith, CDA, Certified General Appraiser. Happily married to his wife, fellow appraiser, and business partner, Michelle, he is the proud father of two children. And, yes, he actually worked as a golf pro, having studied the industry at the Myrtle Beach campus of the San Diego Golf Academy.
But in 2009 he made the switch to practicing as an appraiser. These days, he and his wife head up their own firm, McCarthy & Smith Real Estate Services LLC—and expert witness appraisal work is a key component of their success.
Q: How did you find out about the opportunity of working as an expert witness appraiser?
A: My father-in-law was a Certified General Appraiser, and he was one of the few appraisers in our area who would take on this kind of work. While training under him, I began working behind the scenes on these cases. I would do research, work on the reports, and answer the phones, and my father-in-law would then go into court.
Q: What appealed to you most regarding expert witness appraisal work?
A: It was just a nice challenge, and kind of fun. I liked the narrative flow required for these more complex projects, and I really enjoyed the level of work it takes to prepare these reports for court.
Q: Would you say this mixture of challenge and fun is still appealing to you?
A: Yes, there’s always something new. At our firm we do all property types: land, residential, and commercial. In terms of litigation work, we handle cases like estate and divorce settlements, among others.
Take an estate settlement, for example. There may be a combination of residential and commercial properties to deal with, along with different holdings. Also, our being able to handle everything helps us gain clients—it’s easier for them to work with just one firm.
Q: What’s an example of one of the more interesting and unexpected property types you’ve gotten to deal with?
A: There was one case that required me to appraise an 80,000 sq. ft. warehouse facility. During the inspection, I asked the property owner if there was a tenant, and he said that, yes, there was. When I got inside, all I saw were soup cans—clean, empty soup cans stacked 3 pallets high and filling up the space! They were even stacked in the office. Turns out, the warehouse was about 200 yards away from a large name-brand soup manufacturing facility, and they had a leasing arrangement allowing the company to store cans in the space. This allowed the soup factory to keep plenty of empty cans on hand to keep production going. So you never know what you’re going to find.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced breaking into this niche? True, your father-in-law was training you and was a good source of clients and leads, but it wasn’t all that easy, was it?
A: No, it wasn’t. I still had to break in for myself. I worked pretty much behind the scenes for five years, preparing reports and building my appraisal skills, before I was able to start establishing my own name for expert witness work. It wasn’t my name being called at the docket, you know.
Even when I was ready to go into court myself and stand as an expert witness appraiser, there was a transition period. I was handling the phones a lot, like I said earlier, and if my father-in-law wasn’t able to take on a case, a client would sometimes ask, “Would you be willing to go to court?”
At a certain point, when he was looking to lower his workload and edge closer to retirement, he would say to a client on the phone, “Let me let you talk to Graham. He handles these situations now.” That was great. But there was still the question: would they trust me?
I guess this is pretty much true of anyone looking to make a name for themselves in a new field—you’re trying to gain experience, but they’re looking for someone who already has experience. And in my case, at first what everyone wanted was my father-in-law’s name.
So, you’ve got to keep beating on that door to make things happen and establish yourself as the person clients will come to.
Q: What have been some of the main benefits that have come out of adding expert witness skills and credentials to your appraisal toolkit?
A: Well, I love the challenge of it; it’s good work. And monetarily, having that pool of clients at your disposal is definitely a good thing.
There’s that old saying about not putting all your eggs in one basket. Bank work is the bread and butter for appraisers, but with interest rates being what they are and all the other factors related to today’s economy, it’s not what it used to be. For our practice, when there was a slowdown on the mortgage side, the legal side was still there and even picked up.
Q: How about in terms of looking ahead and what you have planned for your career. Is expert witness appraisal work a part of this?
A: Yes, definitely. It’s an avenue for us as an appraisal practice firm to continue to grow. We’re not looking to get out of appraisal or slow down. Doing expert witness-related work is a big part of this. I mean, with bank regulations getting so crazy, it seems, many people may anticipate the profession slowing down. But not us.
Q: What advice would you give to someone getting ready to move into this niche?
A: Find someone in your area who’s already doing this and see if they’ll let you shadow them. That way, you can find out if it’s really what you’re cut out for. It’s better to find out that it’s not for you that way than on the stand.
Basically, just sit down and talk with them. Let them know you’re interested in this kind of work and tell them what you’re after. And it’s not that you necessarily need to work for them. Think more in terms of working with them. For example, maybe they’ll have some eminent domain work. You can help them with some aspects of the project and see how it all works.
Actually, I think this is a big opportunity now. There are a lot of appraisers out there who are getting close to an age when they are beginning to think about retiring. They’re wanting to slow down. That could be your opening, because as these seasoned pros consider moving out of the business, there are just not a lot of people looking to come in and take over.
Q: Any other comments about how someone can know if this might be a good fit for them?
A: In a way, it’s hard to say. We’ve already touched on some things, like enjoying the challenge. But, you know, for me personally, this wasn’t something I saw coming. When I was first starting out as an appraiser, I didn’t see myself as one day testifying as an expert witness in court.
But it’s been a great way to grow the business and develop some revenue that’s not as dependent on the large banks and lenders. Also, with this work you’re not as pushed for time, like you typically are with work on the lender side. It’s more work on each project, but not as many time constraints, so you do have the time to do the work well. You’re usually able to work these projects in among other projects you have going.
Q: You’re obviously a busy guy. What do you do when you’re not testifying in court or doing your other appraisal work? Do you tee it up every weekend?
A: [With laughter] No, I’m not playing that much golf these days. I tell people I went from playing golf seven days a week to once a year. I run an annual fund-raising event on the golf course, and that’s about it on the golf front. So it really is once a year.
I do go to the beach whenever I can with my family. I love going fishing. Seeing my boy pull in a flounder—now that’s what I really enjoy.
Article by John Hays. John Hays is a marketing consultant and copywriter who specializes in the real estate, finance, and business opportunity markets. While working in a CRE appraisal shop, he gained insider experience with property types ranging from residential lots to warehouse facilities to golf courses. He still runs cash flows on his financial calculator for fun. To get in touch, visit hayswriting.com or send him an email at [email protected].