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Getting to the art of real estate appraisal

When you meet people like Robert Von Ancken, it's hard to understand how they find enough hours in the day for all the work they do.

Von Ancken, who serves as an executive managing director of the metropolitan valuation and consulting practice with Grubb & Ellis, does appraisals for such projects as the World Trade Centec, the Farley Post Office and the West Side Rail Yards during the day, then goes home to run his own acquisition and disposition business.

Perhaps it was just meant to be that way. Von Ancken, who holds a degree in engineering from the City
University of New York, actually stumbled into the area of real estate appraisal by the grace of fate.

There were few engineering jobs available when he graduated, so he decided he would give real estate a try. However, just weeks after he started as office leasing canvasser with Julien Studley, Von Ancken was called to active duty by the U.S. Army Reserve and his plans fell through once again. After a year of Army service in Panama, Von Ancken came back to New York and enrolled in the graduate real estate program at City University.

"I decided I wanted to go into the business part of it," he explains.

He worked for a variety of smaller firms for a while, including Model Cities Program and Abbot & Addams.

His big break came when he joined Wm. A. White/Tishman East. Soon after Von Ancken joined the firm, the head appraiser retired and he was able to take over the division and expand it. At Wm. A. White, Von Ancken started to do bigger, more important appraisals, many of them for New York State and City governments.

"My first major job was on behalf of the State of New York--it concerned the acquisition of 50 properties for the construction of a state office building," Von Ancken recalls. "That led to more and more work with matters where I had to testify [before a court]. I testified on behalf of the Landmarks Commission--we were able to prove to the Court of Appeals that as a landmark with the right to transfer air rights, Grand Central Station was a viable entity. That case solidified the landmark law. During that period of time, it was a continual progression of appraisals for court purposes and market and feasibility studies for new buildings. And that led us into a special sort of niche--determining the value of the land under a long-term lease, both for apartment and for office buildings."

Wm A. White/Tishman East (the company was later bought by Grubb & Ellis) was also where Von Ancken met his future business partner, Leslie J. Garfield, with whom he runs a small real estate investment enterprise. Garfield, who also worked at Wm. A. White, had the desk next to Von Ancken's and, in 1980, he came to his neighbor with a proposition to buy a building together.

"He thought it was a good deal and I analyzed it and said 'Let's buy it,'" Von Ancken says. "And we've been doing it ever since.

"Unfortunately, we also sold a lot of buildings, which we shouldn't have," he laughs.

Von Ancken says he enjoys the side business his buildings bring him, but serving as his own broker also gives him an insight into the market other appraisers rarely get.

"It helps me tremendously. I mortgage the properties, I take care of the retail leases--it gives you a first-hand idea of what's happening in the market," he explains.

"Appraisal is not a science, it's an art," he adds. "I read a lot to keep abreast of the market and I check all of the sales in Manhattan, just so I have a good general understanding of what's happening in the market. I also like to talk to brokers. Especially when the market is escalating the way it is today, the brokers [are the people who know the most.]"

Von Ancken is self-effacing about the scope of his knowledge, but some of his recent projects testify to how respected the Grubb & Ellis appraisal department is in New York City. Von Ancken and his staff were charged with estimating the value of the World Trade Center prior to the terrorist attacks on behalf of the insurance companies and completed special assignments on the East Side Access plan and the expansion of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. There doesn't seem to be an institution in New York that is not one of Von Ancken's clients, including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Board of Education, Columbia University, Mount Sinai Hospital and Battery Park City Authority, among hundreds of others.

Among all of this work, however, Von Ancken never seems to get tired. In the past few years, he has bought and renovated an old mansion in Briarcliff Manor for his family and he sets out on sailing adventures about twice a year.

"I've sailed all over the world--Turkey, Greece, France, Croatia," he admits. "Me and my sons used to rent out boats in the East Hamptons in the summer and then we would take them to Florida in the winter."

"We stopped [doing that] because some of the people we hired to bring the boats from one place to another would take a long time to come back," he laughs.

Von Ancken, who has three sons and a teenage daughter, says that two of his children have already followed in his footsteps and became real estate appraisals. However, he hopes that the trend will stop there.

"I have another son at Vassar. He worked here during the summer, but I really hope he's not an appraiser," he says.

"Three real estate appraisers in one family is enough."

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