by Alan Blankenship, PhD
Published by the Appraisal Institute, 1998
Copyright © 1998 Property Valuation Advisors, Newburyport, MA
As one reader* put it: "When I review an appraisal, the one thing that annoys me as much as bad appraisal practice is bad writing practice. I don't mean we have to be John Updike or William F. Buckley, Jr., but the writing is the second most important part of the report. This little book will help."
Many thicker books are available on writing practices, but this little book may answer many of your questions much more quickly. You'll learn when to use (and not to use) commas, which words to avoid, and how to pare your writing down.
While preparing the report, the author suggests, the appraiser should consider, "Who is the reader?" The value of the communication will depend on what response the writer produces in the reader versus the response the writer hoped to produce. To be more effective, writers should strive for clarity, simplicity, and accuracy. Moreover, they should make it short. In today's fast paced world, less is more.
Beyond just writing, visual aspects of the report can be as important. Organization is one visual aspect to consider. The author suggests "chunking" the report into easily digestible parts. A suggested break down includes "Introduction", "Premises of the Appraisal", "The Presentation of Data", and "The Analysis of Data and Conclusions".
He also discusses typefaces. Serif style fonts of 10-12 point give the most readable appearance for the body of the report, with larger and/or bolder sans-serif fonts for the titles and sub-titles. Avoid using more than three fonts, however, otherwise, your report could become difficult to read or worse, also ends up looking like a ransom note. In deciding line lengths, shorter line lengths are more readable than longer ones. When emphasis is necessary, avoid using UPPER CASE or antiquated underlining, instead use italics, bold, or slightly larger font sizes.
For clarity, surround calculations with adequate white space to set them off from the rest of the text. If your goal is to be concise (and it should be), a picture may save you a thousand words. Moreover, clearly identified tables with carefully labeled data are an excellent way to present information that would otherwise be cumbersome. Always think, "What am I trying to convey?" Readers often look at tables and other exhibits (maps, graphs, and photographs) out of context and pause at these graphics. So providing clear titles and meaningful abbreviations and acronyms with your exhibits will reduce ambiguity.
Charts often can reveal relationships and trends. For illustrating portions or percentages (e.g., the percentage of each land use in a neighborhood), the author recommends pie charts. Line graphs, on the other hand, can illustrate trends over time or by size, such as the change in sale price per square foot. A regression or trend line can clearly show such trends visually rather than using a lengthy, technical narrative about regression analysis. Graphical presentations of trends and relationships will be more understandable, therefore, will lead to more credible conclusions.
If the reader will need to see the exhibit to be convinced of your conclusion, place the exhibit or graphic in context in the body of the report. Don't force a client to search through the addenda for vital information. To keep the flow of the report fluid, however, place supplementary information in the addenda. Still, even non-crucial small exhibits won't disrupt the flow of the report, if you simply let the text flow around them.
While some still believe that hedging your opinion is necessary and that stilted language reflects professionalism, the author disagrees. He states: "Write to express, not to impress." A small nugget of useful information is more valuable than a mountain of raw data. Don't make your reader quarry and mine to find the salient points.
Even wordy lawyers are struggling today to rid legal documents of pompous and archaic expressions so why shouldn't you? Archaic language serves no purpose. Examples to avoid include words such as pursuant, heretofore, herein, and opine. "Let little words do the work." Don't use a large word when a small one will do. Also drop do-nothing words (e.g., for the purpose of, with a view to, in order to). In these three examples, simply use the word to. The word most can replace the phrase, the majority of. Moreover, replace two equal halves with two halves, replace new innovation with new, and replace large in size with large.
A nugget of information is
more valuable than a mountain
"Each major section of the report should begin with an attention grabbing statement," suggests the author. Too often sections begin with limp and obvious statements. Moreover, be precise and specific, and avoid value judgments such as a large tract or a superior location unless you support them with facts.
Avoid boilerplate, overused phrases, jargon, and unexplained acronyms and symbols whenever possible. At all costs, avoid the words very unique (unique means the only one of its kind; it's not a relative term). In fact, use adjectives and adverbs very, very, very sparingly. Most uses of adjectives and adverbs just add clutter; unadorned verbs will give your sentences the most punch.
The appraisal report falls into the category of technical writing and it contains many numbers. Therefore, for clarity and consistency, certain rules about presenting numbers apply. Write out numbers less than 10 as one, two, three, etc., except those used with standard units of measure (e.g., $2.50, 8%, and 2 sq. ft.). Even this exception, however, has an exception: never start sentences with a numeral; for example, a sentence beginning with 8% should be written as "Eight percent... ."
Moreover, express plural acronyms (e.g., NOIs, IRRs, etc.) and dates (e.g., 1980s and 1990s) without apostrophes. Also be careful of pronouns: many indefinite pronouns (e.g., each, either) take singular verbs. The author also provides a short list of frequently misused words: affect versus effect, imply versus infer, and continual versus continuous. A subsequent chapter is devoted to proper punctuation.
Next, in Chapter 7, he discusses the proper use of footnotes and bibliographies (although the booklet has no bibliography, which would have been useful to readers looking for more information).
When is your report finished? Only after it has been edited. Typos, grammar errors, and usage problems will dilute your content and arguments. Moreover, ask yourself, do the logic, content, and argument address the issues involved and support your conclusions? Does the language express your meaning exactly? View the report as a client or as an opposing attorney would. Is everything pertinent, or can some sections be cut or condensed? Is the report consistent? Have all changes or revisions been carried through to all the sections of the report? Is there any unnecessary verbiage, jargon, or hedging? Use spellcheck software, but don't rely on it. Also, check the spelling of the client's name.
Although it is a focused publication, the book only scratches the surface. So think of it as a Strunk & White's for appraisers. It is compact, abbreviated, loaded with useful information, yet surely doesn't have it all. Still, it is not a bad, lightweight companion to have by your side, particularly when writing about real estate.
The book above, The Appraisal Writing Handbook, is available on-line at Amazon Books.
Stephen Traub, ASA, the reviewer, is chief commercial appraiser for Property Valuation Advisors, 63 Hill St., Newburyport, MA 01950. He is a certified general appraiser in NH, ME, and MA.
To contact the author of this review, e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact him at the address above, or call 978-462-4347.
* Quote (at beginning of review) by George Rosendale, Island Appraisal, Inc., Tavernier, FL.
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