Jillian White is seriously into real estate. For her 14th birthday, she asked her parents to take her to an open house. (Not your typical 14th birthday present, that’s for sure.) And as a kid, she remembers going to friends’ houses and eagerly wanting to check out the upstairs. She’s just really into houses. It’s her thing.
And it helps explain why she became a professional appraiser in the first place. But she’s no ordinary appraiser. She’s a changemaker in an industry ripe for change—a recognized voice in the battle against appraisal bias.
She’s been an appraiser for two decades, so she knows her stuff. Lot size, square footage, granite countertops, unfinished basements, you name it. But she’s also smart as a whip, an Ivy Leaguer who majored in neuroscience. So honestly, you couldn’t script a better advocate for the cause. The status quo is in real trouble here, trust me.
But bias is a hard thing to prove, and that’s why you need a Jillian White.
She’s articulate, cerebral, and convincing. And she’s found herself leading a wave of transformative change in an industry still dominated by an old boys network. But appraisal bias is real, whether intentional or not. Court cases involving it are just starting to be decided. And Black homeowners are winning big decisions with evidence of bias that’s almost laughably obvious.
In one recent federal civil case, brought on a property in Marin City, California, a second appraisal on a home–where a White friend of the Black owners posed as the homeowner–came in 50 percent higher than the original appraisal. The first value was $995,000, while the second appraisal came in at a whopping $1,482,500. The Black owners who sued the appraisal company reached an out-of-court settlement in early March. (The case was featured in an ABC documentary called “Our America: Lowballed” and White appeared on the show. )
In February, White marked 20 years as an appraiser. She estimates she’s done thousands of residential appraisals where she’s gone inside the homes. She says the bulk have been in the suburbs of Westchester County, but some in New York City. And she’s definitely seen some fabulous properties (and some awesome upstairs).
White speaks with the earned authority of a veteran appraiser. Yet running into her on the street you’d never guess that’s her profession—too young, wrong sex, wrong race (she’s Black), and no tape measure on the belt. (And did I mention? She’s only 41.)
But she’s spent almost 11 years as president of her own firm, White Picket Fence Appraisals, and then six more years at an innovative online mortgage lender called Better Inc. Recently she left the hands-on work of a professional appraiser for a consulting firm she’s launching in Manhattan. But her heart is still tied to the basic work of an appraiser, exploring the upstairs of homes, meeting families. She says, “that’s what I miss the most.”
But it was never a straight line into the appraisal business for Jillian White. Trailblazers often do a little zig-zagging in their quests.
Atypical from the start
White’s degree in neuroscience is from Columbia. And it was only after graduating that she discovered the field of appraising. But even for someone whose background was in frontal lobes, the barriers to entry in the appraisal world were surprising.
The latest numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, derived from the Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey 2022, show just 4.2 percent of those employed as property appraisers were African American. According to those statistics, 92.4 percent of employed appraisers in 2022 were White. Just 7.8 percent were Hispanic or Latino, and only 2.7 percent were Asian.
The stickiness of this skewed demographic is a big part of the problem. The current rules for becoming a licensed appraiser require you to find a professional appraiser who will sponsor you for a set period of time and sign off on your work. And only then, can you become a licensed appraiser.
With only about 4 percent of appraisers in the country being Black, it’s been difficult finding a mentor if you’re Black. That one requirement alone has made it a profession that’s hard for people of color to break into. It’s been an insiders’ game for a long time.
But as a new college grad, White wasn’t even ready for that battle. She was still figuring out what she wanted to be.
A classified ad
In her freshman year, White considered going pre-Med. But a counselor told her not to apply to med school until she’d worked in a hospital. So in her junior year, she got an internship at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. But after that experience, she decided practicing medicine wasn’t her thing, so she focused instead on the Ph.D. route.
She interned at labs at NYU and Yale to see if neuroscience was her true calling, but she wasn’t sold on that either. Looking back, she says, “I did my due diligence across both tracks, so no regrets. It was the right call.”
She was just not into the minutiae of lab work. And wanted to have some freedom in her work as well.
That’s when she spotted a listing in her local newspaper, The Journal News. It was a classified ad for something called a “real estate appraiser.” She turned to her mom and said “That’s it.”And she immediately applied for and got the job.
Before seeing that ad, she’d never heard of the profession. She certainly knew about real estate sales, but that is more relationship-based, and she was looking for something more transaction-based, more scientific.
And the draw of the job aligned with her interest in the interior space of homes. “The décor inside a home is like the neuroscience part, it gives you insight into the person. It’s one of the broadest forms of self-expression there is,” she says.
But finally settling on a chosen profession turned out to be the easy part.
Ground floor obstacles
Shortly after getting that first job, White ended up leaving it. It wasn’t the job for her. And things just got rockier after that.
Her next job was with a real estate sales company with several branches. Two weeks after being hired, the CEO came to visit her branch. He asked her if her manager had given her the math test yet. She said no. And then he asked if the manager had given her the written test, adding that in order to be an appraiser, you have to be good at both math and reading.
She recalls her response was something like: “I think my degree from Columbia University in neuroscience more than prepared me for this job.” And then she quit. But being only 21 years old, she also went to the bathroom and cried before she left.
And now she was out on her own again, trying to find a supervisory appraiser.
She sent out tons of resumes and eventually ran out of appraisal companies to send resumes to. That’s when the scientist in her decided to tweak things a bit. She changed the name on her resume from Jillian White to J. White. (Nice move, Jillian.)
As a result, she finally heard back from a guy who was interested in talking to her about an opening. Without ever speaking to her on the phone, he asked her to come in for an interview. When she got to his office she was standing in the doorway and introduced herself. Without hesitation, he told her, “You’re really overqualified.” And he just kept repeating that, without ever asking her to come inside and sit down for the interview.
She says she realized then, he was just not into hiring a Black woman. The conversation lasted less than 10 minutes.
But Jillian White didn’t need that guy’s help in getting her foot in the door. She made it happen on her own. And today she’s not only a successful appraiser, she sits on powerful industry boards.
White served on the New York State Board of Real Estate Appraisal. She currently sits on the Board of Trustees for The Appraisal Foundation and serves on the Government Relations Committee for The Appraisal Institute.
But she also spent countless hours in the trenches as a professional appraiser.
She was the strategic founder and president of White Picket Fence Appraisals, Inc. from May 2005 to March 2016. More recently she served in senior positions for New York-based online mortgage pioneer Better Inc. From April 2016 to June 2022, she held appraisal management jobs at Better including Director of Collateral Strategy, Head of Collateral, and Head of Better+ Affiliate Businesses
With all that experience, we asked her: Will the change that’s needed to eliminate appraisal bias come from outside the industry (regulators and courts) or will it come from within the profession itself?
But there’s actually been a very powerful third vector shining a light on the problem. And it’s the media. And this is where Jillian White has been an absolutely pioneering voice.
She’s appeared in the ABC documentary and been featured in a New York Times article from January 18, 2023, titled “How Three Black Women Hope to Change the Home Appraisal Industry.”
She was interviewed extensively, in a March 3, 2021 article for Bloomberg City Lab/Housing by Brentin Mock called “What Will It Take to Close the Race Gap in Home Appraisals.”
Mock tells the story of how Jillian White’s own aunt and uncle were advised by a Realtor to take down their family photos and essentially “erase themselves in the home” in order to get an unbiased appraisal for a mortgage. In the article, White says she supported the strategy at the time, to help ensure her relatives got maximum value for their refinance.
But how uncomfortable must that have been. To acknowledge to your family members, that in your professional opinion, in order to get fair value for their home, they would have to pretend someone else lives there.
And how unfair is a system that makes people choose between their actual identity and their financial well-being.
But that was back in 2021. And now, two years later, Jillian White is fighting back.
An effective advocate
“I’m in a very unique position because I straddle three worlds. I’m a professional appraiser; I’ve headed the appraisal department at a major bank; and I’m a Black person and can speak to the field from that perspective.”
The goal of her new consulting firm is to design coursework for a broad industry audience of regulators, lenders, appraisal management companies (AMCs) and housing advocates. But her main focus currently is developing the training for lenders and AMCs to build procedures for spotting appraisal bias, internally, transaction by transaction.
“I feel I have a duty to be part of the solution,” she says.
So are things starting to change?
“It probably seems from the outside that things are moving slowly but both of my terms just started on the professional boards [The Appraisal Institute and The Appraisal Foundation] so it’s too early to say how much change can be accomplished…But when this year is over, I will evaluate how much change can be accomplished from being inside the system and whether it might prove more effective to concentrate my efforts from the outside,” she says.
So stay tuned, is what she’s saying.
Diversity in the ranks
So when will the average appraiser start to look more like America—more like Jillian White?
Two specific efforts are underway that look promising, White says.
First, is the Appraiser Diversity Initiative, which is a joint initiative between Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; the National Urban League; and the Appraisal Institute. The effort is working through the National Urban League’s regional Entrepreneurship Centers to reach new candidates.
According to the Institute’s website, “[T]he initiative is designed to reach diverse, talented candidates and educate them about the appraisal profession; provide resources for interested candidates to help them get on a path to success; and offer guidance from appraisers employed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”
White says what’s key is they pay for the qualifying education for training appraisers and they also help place them with supervisor appraisers once they’ve completed their qualifying education.
The second effort involves the Appraiser Qualifications Board (AQB), which is examining unnecessary barriers to entry in the field. The AQB establishes the minimum qualifications known as the Real Property Appraiser Qualification Criteria.
The push for change is being fostered by an interagency task force called the Property and Valuation Equity Initiative [PAVE], which is dedicated to ending bias in home valuation. It is a task force made up of 13 federal agencies and offices, chaired by HUD and the White House Domestic Policy Council. White says PAVE has explicitly asked that the AQB reexamine what it requires for someone to become an appraiser.
“So I’m hopeful regarding that,” she says.
But she is pretty blunt about what’s been accomplished so far: “In terms of how much progress has been made to date, according to the numbers—very little,” White says.
From her spot on The Appraisal Foundation’s Board of Trustees, we wondered what changes are being discussed. She says they’re looking at unnecessary barriers to entry, and opening up the industry’s governance structure to more outside industry players and perspectives on appraiser qualifications and appraisal standards.
But could she possibly be optimistic?
“I’m definitely operating from a place of optimism,” she says.
Appraisal bias is now being seen as part of a much larger societal problem (the wealth gap) that policy wonks in Washington are all over.
“The media is focused on the bias of individual appraisers. And biased individuals are real,” she says.
“But broader financial impacts of bias are real, too. And they result in the lack of investment in Black communities and that affects the ability of people to build financial security with wealth from their homes. And that can’t be solved for with ending individual bias of appraisers alone.”
She says linking the issue to the broader topic of the wealth gap, pretty much guarantees the topic is not going away. White says even President Biden is pulling together a task force on the topic.
She adds, “It may not be totally fixed today or tomorrow, but concrete steps are being taken—I’m very optimistic about that.”
But we wonder, as she logs more and more hours as the face of an industry expert on appraisal bias, has her newfound stardom gone to her head?
Has it changed her life?
Well, Jillian White doesn’t come across as a media superstar. She’s just too grounded. “Thought leader” is her preferred description. (It’s more neurosciency.)
We asked what she’s most proud of in her career. Her answer shows she’s still straddling two worlds—professional appraiser and thought leader. Her new media persona still feels new to her, she’s still a professional appraiser at heart.
“I’m most proud of two things. One is the work I did at Better. Because when I was hired, I had one direct report and at the end of my tenure I was running an 800-person department and they never hired anybody above me. So I was able to keep up with the pace and growth of the company and grow with it and not be stepped over. So I’m super proud of that.”
The second accomplishment sounds like something she’s still trying to wrap her head around.
“I’m really proud of. . . becoming a thought leader on appraisal bias. I’ve read every report, every document on it, and I’ve seen some of the high profile appraisal bias reports. The label of thought leader is the culmination of that work.”
And then she adds, in a way that sounds a bit like she’s still trying to convince herself: “[T]here’s a highly specialized skill set and knowledge base that I have. So I carved out a niche for myself, naturally and quickly. I’m really proud of that.”
She talks calmly, cautiously avoiding overstatement, like a trained neuroscientist trying not to overplay a lab discovery.
So when did she first realize appraisal bias was being seen as a real issue in the outside world? When did the topic–that would redefine her career–become more than the media flavor of the month?
It was back in August 2020 when the first New York Times article came out. She was on vacation and one of her friends texted her, she says. Co-workers were pinging her saying, “Oh my goodness, I had no idea. What are we going to do about this?”
But appraisal bias wasn’t anything new to White. “I had an idea, because I have gone through the experience of white washing myself. But it was only when there was all this attention on it that I was like: ‘Oh, yeah, I guess it is ridiculous that Black people erase themselves from their home in preparation for a sale or an appraisal.’”
Or more to the point, that they should have to.
It’s been a long time since that memorable 14th birthday visit to an open house in her neighborhood. But now, hopefully, the family pictures can stay on the mantel for every open house, in everyone’s neighborhood, no matter what they look like. Or at least, if they don’t, someone’s going to hear about it. (Way to go, Jillian.)
Janet Reilley Hewitt is an award-winning financial journalist who served as editor in chief of Mortgage Banking, MBA’s monthly publication that set the standard publications in the mortgage industry. Now retired, Janet spends her time traveling, volunteering and spending time with family.