Appealing Circumstances

Appealing Circumstances

If homeowners suspect a mistake in their property assessment, they might consider an appeal.

Last year Samuel Burkeen of Reston logged onto Fairfax County’s Web site to check out the description of his house, including information used to determine his home’s value and calculate his property taxes.

“The description included a wrap-around porch, and the living area seemed unreasonably high,” said Burkeen.

It was strange given the fact that Burkeen’s home doesn’t have a porch, “wrap-around or otherwise,” as Burkeen put it.

After emailing the assessment office about the discrepancy, Burkeen got a visit from a county appraiser three weeks later. “On the way out, [the appraiser] asked about the bedroom over the garage,” said Burkeen. Again, an odd question given Burkeen didn’t have a bedroom over his garage.

The county made note of the errors, and six weeks later Burkeen received a check for $1,800. The county can only refund overpayments for the current year and three prior years.

But Burkeen thinks the county may have had incorrect information about his home since he bought it in 1986. “Unfortunately, the overpayments for the other 14 years are quite literally down the toilet,” said Burkeen.

EACH YEAR, Fairfax County’s 64 appraisers have to calculate assessments for about 337,000 properties. Acknowledging the Herculean task, tax officials recognize mistakes may be made and encourage homeowners who think their assessment is wrong to contact Fairfax County’s Department of Tax Administration.

It is also why an appeals process is available. Homeowners who think their assessment is too high can file an appeal with Department of Tax Administration or with the Board of Equalization. The deadline to file an appeal with Department of Tax Administration is March 31, while the deadline to file an appeal with the Board of Equalization is June 1.

Last year, the county received a total of 2,637 appeals, less than 1 percent of the properties assessed. The appeal process usually results in a decrease in the assessment or no change.

In general, after the appeals process, about half the properties are assessed for less, about 49 percent stay the same and less than 1 percent are assessed for more, said Janet Coldsmith, director of Fairfax County’s Real Estate Division.

But homeowners shouldn’t expect their appeal to be successful just because their home’s assessed value has gone up dramatically.

Appeals ought to be based on relevant market information, rather than entreaties based on how fast a home’s value has increased, said William C. Harvey II, one of two licensed appraisers on Fairfax County’s Board of Equalization. “Just because [a home’s value] has gone up a lot is not really a valid reason to appeal,” said Harvey.

The first question people ought to ask themselves, Harvey said, is whether or not their home could sell at the assessed value.

“By and large, I think the answer is yes,” said Harvey. “If the answer is no, there’s grounds for an appeal.” Harvey stressed, however, that the board considers each appeal on a case-by-case basis.

THIS IS THE time of year when people might suspect a problem with their assessments. Last month, the county sent out its 2006 property assessments. On average, home values jumped another 20 percent this year.

People have become accustomed to the double-edged sword of rising home values. While higher assessments translate into greater wealth for homeowners, they’ve also become synonymous with higher taxes.

The actual property tax people pay is determined by the county’s Board of Supervisors, which will set the tax rate later this year after public hearings.

The county has already proposed a 7-cent decrease in the tax rate. But even with that cut, the average homeowner will see a $544 tax increase this year.

ALTHOUGH ASSESSMENT mistakes like the one Burkeen experienced are uncommon, the county makes it easy to find out. For homeowners, it’s as simple as hopping on the Internet and typing in their address (See box).

Since 1998, the county began posting real estate assessment information online. It was one of the first jurisdictions in the state to do so, said Coldsmith.

On the site, homeowners can view all sorts of data about their home, including past sale prices, dimensions (like living space square footage and the number of bedrooms), and past assessments through 2000.

In addition, the Web site has a link to “neighborhood sales,” which show a listing of recent sale prices in a home’s immediate neighborhood.

The county appraisers consider these sales figures when calculating a home’s assessment, said Coldsmith.

“[The neighborhood sales] really help people understand the sales activity,” said Coldsmith. “It allows them to confirm that the assessment is right or pinpoint where they think the problem is.”

Because of accessible and available data for homeowners, the county avoids unnecessary assessment appeals, said Coldsmith.

Burkeen, the Reston homeowner who got an $1,800 refund, encourages others to check their home descriptions online. “There is plenty of room for deviation in [the assessment] process, and I suspect there are plenty of people either getting away with murder or just plain getting screwed,” said Burkeen.