Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 14, 2023

Police, predators and comps

All in a day’s work for real estate appraiser

Despite the challenges of owning a business, Laura Covington says she enjoys operating her own home appraisal service as it affords her the freedom and autonomy she lacked when she worked for a firm. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Laura Covington has learned to expect the unexpected when she’s working. People have chased her, cursed at her and even alerted the police to her presence on a neighbor’s property.

While operating in her professional capacity, Covington has been eyed suspiciously, bathed in flashing blue lights and, on one harrowing occasion, stared a predator dead in its eyes.

One can imagine a television series based on Covington’s exploits. It wouldn’t be broadcast alongside “Law & Order” or “NCIS,” though. Rather, it would be a better fit for HGTV, which could produce a reality series about her work as a home appraiser.

“Apparently, I look suspicious while standing in a yard with a clipboard and a tape measure,” laughs Covington.

Despite the innocuous nature of her work, which involves assessing the value of residential properties for lenders, Covington has drawn all manner of unsolicited attention.

“I take my own comparable photos,” she offers as an example. “I can use other photos, but I like mine to be uniform. If it’s summer and there are leaves on the trees, I want every property to have leaves on the trees. That’s just a Laura thing.

“When I see someone coming, I’ll hand them a business card and say, ‘I’m updating my files.’ People have asked me if I’m a private investigator, which made me wonder what they’d been up to.”

Covington, 53, flies solo as the owner of the one-woman home appraisal service Covington Consulting, so she has no one to call for backup. She laughs again as she tells the story about the time someone hailed the police as she was assessing the value of a Hixson residence.

“A neighbor asked if they could help me. I said, ‘The homeowner knows I’m here.’ I couldn’t tell them why I was there. I can’t tell someone the owner is refinancing their house.

“But they called the police anyway. A few minutes later, an officer pulled up – siren blaring – as I was rolling up my tape measure. When I handed him a business card and said I was there on behalf of a lender, he asked if I could tell him what his house is worth.”

Covington has learned to laugh off other misunderstandings, too, including the assumptions people make because she’s female.

“When people answer the door, they sometimes think I’m an assistant – even though I told them on the phone I’d be the one coming to their property. Or they’ll ask if they can help me with my tape measure. Would you ask a man if he needed help with his tape measure?”

While Covington has a back pocket full of amusing stories – and at least one traumatic tale – most appraisals pass without incident. But even on those days, she says she knows people might disagree with her assessments and that conflict is lurking around the corner.

Or in one case, around a $50,000 retaining wall.

“People generally don’t understand that cost doesn’t create value. A homeowner once showed me a retaining wall he’d had to build alongside his driveway. He said he spent $50,000 on it. While it was one of the nicest retaining walls I’d seen, I couldn’t give him $50,000 for it.”

Although some homeowners might claim otherwise, Covington says she doesn’t want to be a deal-killer. At the same time, she’s bound to the market.

“I don’t determine the value of a home; the market does. It’s my job to figure out what the normal person would pay for your property.”

Like a Realtor who insists real estate is about “location, location, location, Covington says the value of a property is partially tied the surrounding infrastructure and amenities. But whatever those are, she has to remain objective.

“I have to ask myself, “What does the average person want?” not, “What does Laura want?” People love land. I’m not a land person, I’m a subdivision person. But I don’t give land less value because I don’t like it.”

Fortunately, Covington notes, most homeowners are understanding and kind when they speak with her. And when they’re not, she still hears them out.

“I’ll listen to them because no one else will. And people don’t know what they don’t know. But I hang up when they start cussing and calling me nasty names. Even then, I know they’re not attacking me, they’re attacking the value they don’t like.”

Covington says most disagreements occur because people take pride in their homes and tend to believe they hold more value than they do.

“I think that about my home,” she confesses. “When I sold a home years ago, I told the appraiser what I thought it was worth, and he said, ‘No.’ But you have to take your emotions out of the transaction and sell your property for the correct price.”

Covington says knowing the local real estate market helps her to ascribe accurate values to properties. A child of East Brainerd, the greater Chattanooga area has been her stomping ground since she could walk.

“I grew up in Rolling Ridge,” she says. “I’d drive to the bottom of the hill on East Brainerd Road and wouldn’t have to stop. If you don’t stop now, you’ll die.”

Covington says she haunted East Brainerd and Ooltewah “before they were East Brainerd and Ooltewah.” She’s currently sitting in a coffee shop near Hamilton Place Mall she says used to be a Burger King, and she remembers eating at the Perkins that was next door.

“My aunt owned a log cabin where Erlanger East Hospital is now. And Gunbarrel was a two-lane road.”

After graduating from Ooltewah High School, Covington earned a paralegal degree at the now shuttered Edmondson Business College and secured a job at a local law firm. She says it wasn’t her cup of tea.

“I hated it. I cried every day.”

Covington’s father told her she didn’t have to keep that particular job but she needed to work somewhere so she could pay off her student loans. So, she grabbed a newspaper and found a job as an office assistant for a local appraisal firm.

“When they asked if I knew anything about housing or the appraisal industry, I said I lived in a house,” she says, burying her face in her hands.

Even though some of Covington’s answers were rough around the edges, the company hired her. A few years later, she became a licensed appraiser. Sixteen years after that, she launched Covington Consulting.

“It was a great decision. I was free to make my own appointments, which allowed me to be with my kids when they needed me, and if I wanted to take a few hours or a day off, I could.”

One thing Covington says she didn’t do was take her former firm’s business with her. Instead, she chose to build her endeavor from scratch – clients and all.

“I didn’t want to be known as someone who stole their employer’s business. That was not my nature. I wanted to build my business not because of where I’d been or who I knew but because I’d earned your trust.”

Today, home appraisers receive work from management companies that function as intermediaries between lenders and appraisers. This inhibits the collusion that was taking place before the housing crash in 2008, Covington explains.

However, when Covington began working as a home appraiser in 2006, she had to solicit her own business, which meant introducing herself to one lender at a time.

When Covington landed a new client, she used the opportunity to nurture a reputation for doing quality work, she says.

“I pride myself on sticking to my word. If I tell you I’ll return an order Friday, I’ll do everything I can to make that happen.”

Covington says learning to be self-sufficient served her well during the 2008 downturn, which she survived by changing her business model.

“I did repossessed properties,” she explains. “There were a lot of those, so I was OK.”

During the years that followed, Covington grew her business without giving a second thought to one of the unique aspects of her work: she was a woman operating in a fundamentally male-dominated industry.

She shrugged off misperceptions about her being an assistant, waved off offers to hold her tape measure and promoted Covington Consulting not as a female-owned business but simply a sole proprietorship focused on client satisfaction.

Even after completing a self-defense class when the Chattanooga Association of Realtors began persistent efforts to raise awareness of Realtor safety, Covington never saw herself as vulnerable due to her sex.

A horrifying encounter she says she’ll never forget changed that.

“I arrived at a new construction on Ooltewah Georgetown Road on a Friday afternoon,” she recalls. “There were two men there; one was cleaning paintbrushes and the other one was leaning against the house smoking. I said hello and told them I was going inside to take a few photos.”

Covington says she felt compelled to hurry, though she can’t say why. When she stepped outside after completing her work, the man who’d been smoking said something that chilled her bones.

“He said, ‘I was going to follow you in there, but I decided not to because what I was going to do would have put me in jail.’”

Shocked, Covington froze momentarily. She then lifted her camera and began snapping photos of the man as she backed toward her car, like a backpacker retreating from a wilderness predator.

Covington didn’t break her gaze until she was locked in her car, she says. She didn’t break down, either, until the reality of what she’d encountered overwhelmed her as she was driving home.

“No one knew where I was,” she says quietly. “No one would have found me.”

By the time Covington purchased a Glock the next day and registered for training at Shooters, she was furious. “I’d worked as an appraiser for years and now I had to buy a gun to protect myself. I didn’t like having to think about being victimized.”

Covington says she completed the training but shelved the Glock. “I didn’t grow up with guns and wasn’t comfortable having one with me. It’s a really nice weapon, but I decided I didn’t want to have a job that required me to carry it.”

While the incident on Ooltewah Georgetown Road forced Covington to come to terms with her vulnerabilities as a female home appraiser, another encounter opened her eyes to her singular value as a woman in her industry.

“I arrived at a house in East Ridge and saw a woman sitting on the front porch,” Covington begins. “As we introduced ourselves, she started to cry.”

Covington says she thought the woman was refinancing her home for personal reasons. But instead, she said she was relieved a woman had come to evaluate her house.

“She’d had a bad experience – not with an appraiser, with someone else – and said if a man had come, she was going to stay on the porch. Helping her feel comfortable made up for all the people who’d disregarded me over the years.”

Although Covington has a different perspective about her place in the home appraisal industry than she once did, her questions about the future of the industry take precedence, she says. For example, she says she’s concerned about the lack of young appraisers locally.

“The average age of appraisers in Chattanooga is rising. Most of the local appraisers are in their sixties. But it’s a hard field to get into because you have to find an established appraiser to sponsor you.”

Locating a sponsor is difficult, Covington adds, because few people are willing to train someone to be their competition.

“A sponsor would have to be willing to pour their time and knowledge into someone, only for that person to leave them to work on their own.”

Covington says any solution would require a laborious change in the law, so she puts her nose to the proverbial grindstone, works diligently during the week so she can enjoy the weekend and contributes some of her free time to various volunteer efforts, such as serving on the Board of Equalization (which reviews appeals from property owners who disagree with the value assigned to their home) and sponsoring the local Women’s Council of Realtors.

All things considered, Covington says, she likes what she does and she’s grateful she saw the office assistant job in a newspaper.

“It’s a lot of math and rules and regulations, but that’s second nature. I mainly like that my success, or failure, is on me. If I submit a report on time, that’s on me; if I don’t, that’s on me. If I get a value wrong, that’s on me; when I get it right, no one cares. I just do my job.”