Sherriff's office talks about investigation
Forsyth County homeowners have just three days left to speak up if they think their home is worth less than the county does.
And any homeowner who does not file a request with the county tax assessor’s office by Wednesday is unlikely get their property value reassessed this year.
In a typical year, about a third of the county’s homes are assessed, said Forsyth County Tax Assessor Mary Kirkpatrick. That won't happen this year.
“Normally, where we would reassess, we may be in a situation now where we just don’t do anything because our statistics are OK,” Kirkpatrick said.
Home values are plummeting on a national level, and Forsyth is no exception. But Kirkpatrick said assessed values are typically lower than a home’s actual fair market value.
As a result, she said, the fall in prices may actually bring a home’s value more in line with an otherwise low assessment.
“I think everyone expects because the economy has gone down that we should automatically go down,” Kirkpatrick said. “One thing that people don’t take into consideration is they may have been low for years. But when they’re low, nobody says anything.
“If [assessed values] have already been below what the market has been, why should we make bad matters worse and drop their values to something that’s just really unreasonable?”
For example, Kirkpatrick said a home worth $350,000 two years ago could have been logged in the county’s tax books at $300,000.
The home may have depreciated over the past two years. But if it's at $300,000 today, the tax office has a correct assessment, she said.
Unless the value of a certain area falls substantially, only new homes are likely to be reassessed this year.
“I’m not going to dispute that values have decreased, but the situation is we were already low enough on their values that they really don’t warrant reducing,” Kirkpatrick said.
“But if you don’t agree with where you were last year, and if you think your value should be different, you need to ... return to us what you think your property is worth.”
Area housing expert Frank Norton Jr. said the average home price in Forsyth County in 2008 was $325,000, about the same as in 2005.
The average closing price of a house in the county for the first two months of this year has fallen to $283,653.
“The last time we saw that was in 2004,” said Norton, president of the Gainesville-based Norton Agency.
Past president of the 400 North Board of Realtors Scott Whelchel has seen similar statistics.
“The last number that I saw was this past Tuesday, and we were down 18.1 percent over just the last 12 months,” he said.
“In the neighborhood that I live in, we’ve had two foreclosures and absolutely I’m going to dispute mine because the sales price on those two homes that sold as foreclosures were substantially less than what I paid for mine.”
Asking for a reassessment, though, could leave some homeowners with higher tax bills.
Kirkpatrick said a little research could save a lot of hassle.
She suggested checking out prices of homes for sale in the same neighborhood or one nearby. A homeowner can also pay to have a private assessment. Though costly, the results would be taken into consideration.
Still, a reassessment could uncover new information, Kirkpatrick said. A finished basement, a deck or additions that were overlooked the first time around could show up.
“They really just need to look at the value on our property assessments and determine if that’s realistic for the market today," she said. "And if it isn’t, they need to file a return.”
Last year, 13,000 of the more than 55,000 reassessments that went out to homeowners reflected a drop in value.
Kirkpatrick said the unusually large number of reassessments resulted from the department’s switch to new software in 2007, which also was responsible for the high number of increased values.
Kirkpatrick said she receives about 300 requests per year for assessments. In 2008, she received more than 3,300, many of which were later withdrawn.
More than 1,000 have come in this year and Kirkpatrick expects to receive many more over the next few days.
“To anticipate a number is a little scary to me right now to be honest,” she said. “We really don’t know what to expect.”
John Clark, Federation of Forsyth County Homeowners president, said she can expect many requests from his members. The property value appeal process was covered at one of the group's recent meetings.
“The people that came to the meeting, most of them were planning on taking advantage of it,” he said. “I know that in my neighborhood, [values have] definitely gone down.
"You have to exclude foreclosures and some of the distressed sales. Still, I know a number of my neighbors are filing an appeal.”
The problem with appealing, Clark said, is a homeowner is essentially contesting the prior year’s assessment.
Property taxes for 2009 are determined based on what a home was worth Jan. 1 of this year, based on sales that occurred in 2008.
“That’s the main thing that I learned from the meeting, is you’ve got to be ahead of the game,” Clark said. “If you’re complaining about your last assessment, then you’re too late to do anything about it.”
But even if successful in getting the value lowered, a homeowner could end up paying another way.
The county still needs to operate. If the tax digest falls enough, the end result could be a county budget with less revenue.
“I want people to be aware that if everyone thinks that coming in and getting your property value lowered is going to get your taxes lowered, that may not be the case,” Kirkpatrick said. “Because if the school and county go up in the millage rate [the measure by which taxes are calculated], your taxes can still go up.”
Because of the county’s rapid growth rate, the millage rate has remained low.
“There’s been tremendous growth and stable and increasing values here," Kirkpatrick said. "But now with the market the way it is, that’s not going to be the case.
“Growth is down, values are down to some extent. So who’s going to say where the school board and commissioners are going to have to go with the rate."