Sunday, July 20, 2008

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Don't mess with me, I'm from Taxes."

Property taxes are coming.

After two appeals, I'm assuming we're not making any more headway on convincing Durham that our modest abode and smidgen of earth is worth as much as assessed.

While the thought of living in a $200K property appeals to my ego, or something, the reality is that our home sweet home is not worth that to anyone in today's market...or tomorrows (for at least another decade anyway).

We've done all we can do, I suppose. When last year's assessment landed, I made one of the first appointments for formal appeal. We assembled our info, primarily consisting of an approximately 6-month-old appraisal done for our refinance last fall. This was pretty nice in that it included the comparables in our neighborhood and the images of our place and the appraiser's appraisal. At the time of our refi, we were quite pleased with the number. A good appreciation from our original purchase price 7.5 years prior, but still within the sane range of possible resale.

I also printed out the Durham County Tax Office's account info for our home and those of our neighbors on either side. During my appointment, first thing on Monday, January 7, of this year, the tax man and I were each endeavoring to be very kind, calm, quiet and exceedingly polite. Not that I adhere to it very well, but I've heard well-meaning others throw out the canard about catching more bees with honey than something (salt?). Of course, I don't really like bees. Sure, I appreciate them, but I've been stung too many times before.

Hey...that kind of works. Because after gently explaining our case to the friendly tax man, in which I pointed out that:
  • the tax office lists our square footage as greater than actually exists,
  • our neighbor with the exact same floorplan received an assessment $40K below ours, and
  • the 83% increase over our last assessment seems a bit steep (I know, I know...the tax office doesn't care about percentage increases...but still...I find it pretty stunning),
When the re-assessment arrived the only obvious adjustment was in the corrected square footage of our house. So, instead of the $220K ($100K more than our original purchase price in 2000), the friendly folks at Durham County Tax knocked it down to $200K. By the way, the tax folks offered no rebate on the previous 7 years of overpayment for that incorrect square footage. Looks like they got taxes on $160K of cumulative overpayment.

In checking out other properties in my neighborhood, a neighborhood I walk frequently staring at the other properties while thinking about paint colors and additions and other wish list things, I noticed a possible pattern.

First the disclaimer. I am a cynical optimist (things work out, just not as you plan) and slightly paranoid and tend towards conspiracy theories--within reason. I believe Oswald acted alone and that 911 was the work of "terrists" (outside of our government), so I'm not a tin hatter.

Still, I couldn't help but notice, in sizing up the neighbors' assessments, that solo property owners received smaller assessments than dual property owners. That is, the assessment of my partner and I, both on the title, is now 20K more than our neighbor on the left (with the same floorplan, same vintage, same small acreage).

In gazing down the listings on the street and adjoining street, the pattern seems to hold.

Even the woman across the street, widowed a couple of years ago (and eligible for that 50% tax due to her age), comes in about $2K less than us--despite a house 16 years newer, with a two-car attached garage, two full baths (as compared to our 1.5) and slightly larger lot (plus she gets sunshine and we get shade, but I don't expect 'em to assess on that).

My other neighbors, on a different street than mine, have a cinder block ranch with faux stucco. Not counting whatever their new bill will be, they are currently over $8K behind on their taxes (over the last 4 years). Their house appears a shambles and their yard mostly overgrown. They don't have central air. Yet their house's assessment is some $31.4K above that of their other neighbor, a single woman in a nice ranch with decent yard and central air. Granted my neighbors do have a bonus room (like a den) stuck on the back of their ranch, as do we and our other neighbor (the single guy whose place, by the way, comes in $7K below my other neighbor's house, despite being comparable on size, land, age). I guess my neighbors on the other street will probably have their house taken by the tax office anyway, for failure to pay taxes, if they're not foreclosed on by some bank first.

Off the conspiracy theory for a sec, and on to the lack of logic these assessments make theory. The property owned by some across-the-street-and-over-a-house neighbors, nice folks, exceeds our property in the following ways:
  • 4 bedroom (1 more than we),
  • 2 full baths (.5 more than we),
  • 2600 square feet of heated living space (1K more than we),
  • .95 acre (nearly 75% more than we)
Plus, it's a really cool mid-century modern design--a mere 3 years older than ours.

Their assessment is $207.4--only about $5K above ours!

Since no one else has a cool, spacious house like theirs around here, I can't try my single vs. double conspiracy theory on their place.

The point of all this is that I'd like an audit of the Durham County Tax Office's methods of assessment. I understand assessments/appraisals are quite subjective, but, still, it seems to me that some measure of logic should be apparent. And, to me, apparently it's not.