In this economic downturn, municipalities are scrambling for money. Around Northern Virginia, tax revenues for towns are largely driven by real estate assessments. During the housing bubble, city governments had flush times. Now they're all faced with record shortfalls as home values plummet. They're all raising their mill-levies. The average real estate tax bill in Falls Church is expected to rise by $75 this year, despite the plunging housing values.
Falls Church is supposed to use 100% real valuation upon which to base its real estate tax. The city real estate assessment office just makes numbers up and mails them out to homeowners once a year. If you disagree with your new fictional valuation, you get to follow an arduous protest procedure and totally waste lots of your time, probably for no result. It's city hall.
I'm making these numbers up, but they're representative. Four years ago, the city office increased the value of my house from, say, 400,000 to 480,000, just like that. When I formally protested, the office sent me three comps that the spike was supposedly based upon, two ranches and a tri-level. My house is a one-and-a-half story workman's cottage built in the 30s. So I went out and found my own three comps, all much more like my house.
One evening a rep from the city office and I appeared before the protest board, which consisted of four realtors and a lawyer, all city residents. The board was not happy with the apples and oranges approach the city office had used for its comps. Everyone on the board but the lawyer had actually driven by all seven houses involved to look at them from the curb.
The lawyer was my implacable enemy from the start because he maintained that my protest was procedurally invalid because I had brought pictures with me to the meeting showing the high voltage power lines 60 feet behind my house (think cancer through long-term exposure to high energy transmissions). He said I should have been included them "in the record" when I protested months earlier (before I knew there would be a hearing). Does anyone doubt that lawyers are universally reviled? (He, being a lawyer, was just being a bully.)
The four realtors pretty much ignored the lawyer and the city spokesperson and huddled together to fix the situation. They made up their own number, 422. I had asked for 410. They said I could take it, or appeal to court. I took it, and considered it a victory. This all took almost an hour while several more protesters waited for their turn.
Two more ridiculous assessment jack ups followed the next two years, but who has time for all this every year? Last year I protested again after another absurd valuation spike that sent my home value soaring to almost 600,000, and this time the city office lowered the valuation a bit without a hearing, and I acquiesced in the new figure.
This year real estate values dropped substantially in the city across the board. The city office actually lowered valuations some, but not much. Mine went from, say, 580 to 544. Trouble was, because I refinanced in December, I had an actual appraisal done by a professional. It said 500.
Naturally I protested. I went to the city office on the last day of the protest season and filled out the protest form, with a copy of the appraisal in hand. In the office, I got the good cop, bad cop routine.
The good cop, a nice lady in the office, first said that if the three addresses used for comps on the appraisal weren't within the city, they wouldn't be considered. The City of Falls Church is very tiny. Nope, they were all actual city addresses.
Then she commented how strange it was that I had my home valuation listed down to the penny. I said that if my house was valued by the city office at 580,000 on January 1, 2008, and it was appraised professionally at 500,000 on December 15, 2008, my home value was falling at a rate that could be calculated by the day. The figure that I submitted, below 500,000, which was down to the penny, accounted for the last 16 days in December.
She rolled her eyes at that one but invited me to sit at an empty desk to finish filling out the form. Then the bad cop, a male coworker, bustled over to converse with her. This idle office chit-chat right next to me was obviously for my benefit. (I'm making these names up, but not this account.)
"Laura, I swear, this year I'm going to turn some of these appraisal agents in to the state licensing board for action on their certification. I mean, every one of them gives a ridiculous low-ball appraisal and the board has been very active in cracking down on these sham appraisals lately and have suspended several licenses. Oh, and look at this file. Remember when the XYZ Project Manager protested the value of his building site which we assessed at 1.6 million? When we re-did it, it came out to 2.2 million! He'll just love getting this re-appraisal. It actually went up! I can't tell you how many times that's happened this year."
Do you suppose the bad cop came over to have that conversation with his co-worker while I was there for my benefit?