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Assessment Increase Driven by Land Values

Average home value in Arlington up 17%, tax base grows to $35.3 billion.

As a Realtor, Linda Wardle is used to looking at house prices, and she’s usually above sticker shock. But even Wardle was surprised when she looked at the county’s assessment of how much her home was worth.

“I was shocked how much it went up,” she said. “But when you look at the prices houses are selling for, it’s not surprising.”

As the mail was delivered across Arlington last week, county homeowners got a look at the county’s new assessed values for their homes, the dollar figure on which their taxes are based. The value of the average single family home in Arlington went up by 17 percent, from $316,00 to $369,600.

Unless County Board members lower property tax rates by 14 cents, that means taxpayers will face another year of increases in their tax bills. In a memo to Board members, County Manager Ron Carlee noted that the real estate tax base in Arlington has grown to $35.3 billion, up 11.5 percent from last year. That growth is due in part to $406 million worth of new construction, he said.

Realtors and the county’s chief assessor said that much of the increases this year come from increases in the value of county land, not homes — an outgrowth of infill development and redevelopment taking place in Arlington’s residential neighborhoods.

Homeowners say their happy to see their homes are worth more to them, but their neighborhoods are rapidly becoming more expensive than they expected.

<b>COUNTY ASSESSORS LOOK</b> at assessment increases in Arlington divided over 11 “trend areas,” geographical areas representing roughly similar houses.

Home values in some areas went up more sharply than in others, but overall “there was a healthy appreciation in value across all classes of property,” said Thomas Rice, director of the county’s Department of Real Estate Assessments.

In his memo to County Board members, Carlee cautioned that increases in the average home value in a trend area does not necessarily translate to the increase in value for individual homes in that area, since the trend area assessment includes new construction in the area.

Still, the biggest percentage increases in trend area home values came in eastern Arlington, in Rosslyn around the periphery of Arlington National Cemetery. The smallest percentage increases came in North Arlington, along the line with Fairfax County around McLean.

Those two areas did experience the biggest monetary increases in the average home values, though. In the far northeast corner of Arlington, the average home value went up by $73,333, and in the Rosslyn-Arlington Cemetery area, the average home value increased by $63,272.

“If you look at it statistically, there were greater increases to the middle and lower end of the spectrum than to the upper end,” said Rice. “It may be there are just more people competing for affordable dwellings: There are more buyers than sellers.”

<b>CATCH-UP BALL</b> is another factor in increasing assessments, said Realtor Peggy Hamaker. “Assessed values weren’t kept up real well, and then about four years ago they started getting on top of that,” she said. “When you’re that far behind and the market is going up astronomically, it’s hard to catch up.”

Hamaker is owner, with her husband, of KDH Properties, the agency where Wardle works. Both women say they have seen assessment increases reflected in the value of properties they’re selling. But the real value lies in Arlington land, they said.

So much so, that it really makes more sense to buy houses with an eye towards demolition. “We have a potential seller whose assessed value is close to $320,000,” said Wardle. “When you saw the property, it’s ridiculous. It’s a little bungalow, but it’s in a very desirable North Arlington location. It’s potentially a house someone would tear down and build another.”

Working with an area developer, Hamaker has been looking for similar homes across Arlington. “I work with a builder, and we’re tearing down ramblers and building million-dollar homes,” she said. “The truth of the matter is, land is very valuable.”

<b>LIVING IN LYON</b> Park, Erik Gutshall saw that truth reflected in his assessment statement this week. “The value of the buildings has remained the same, but the land has gone up,” he said. “The assessment on our land has gone from $257,400 to $330,000, while the house value remained exactly the same.”

His two-story, four-bedroom house is within walking of Metro, he said, which could account for some of the land value. But houses all along North Highland, even those closer to Arlington Boulevard and a long hike from Metro, cost the same.

“Land is land,” said Gutshall.

Lyon Park is right in the middle of the trend area with the highest percentage increase in home values. For Gutshall, president of the neighborhood civic association, it’s a mixed blessing. “Rising property values are great, but you can have too much of a good thing,” he said.

“My wife and I bought this home in 1997, and we paid $193,000,” he said. The house was a three-bedroom then, and Gutshall and his wife Renee oversaw an addition to the back. “There’s no way we’d be able to buy the house we live in now,” he said. “None of our friends, who we know would love to live here, can afford to live here now.”

<b>THAT’S TRUE</b> in the far north corner of Arlington too. “The houses on my street are valued at up to a million, down to half a million,” said Norman Tyler, president of the Bellevue Forest Citizens’ Association. “These are ramblers, one-story houses with a basement unit. These are houses built in the mid-50s.”

Like Gutshall, he said the biggest increases in the neighborhood came in land value.

But Tyler said he will fight the County Board on how much he and his neighbors should pay for that land. “The County Board keeps forcing taxes up,” he said. “We have a fight every year over taxes, and the county does nothing about it.”

He expects to keep fighting this year. County Board members will get a look at Carlee’s proposed budget for next year on Feb. 7, when the manager presents his proposal to the Board. They’ll hear from county citizens about the tax rate on March 25, when the Board holds its annual hearing on county tax rates.