The City of Charlottesville released their 2013 tax assessments this week. Mailings have been sent to home owners, and the web site has been updated to reflect the changes.

Assessments cause all kinds of a ruckus. There is an erroneous perception that prices should instantly adjust to match these new numbers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reality is, this is the City’s best effort to meet state requirements to estimate the values of the parcels in the city. No one in the assessors office would argue they are perfect. I won’t go so far as to say they are even close in many cases.

There are, however, certain times when assessments should be darn easy. Like the day a home sells. If a home sells for $745,000 after being offered on the open market, and the transaction is indeed an arms length transaction, it makes total sense that the City would be able to assess that house without really thinking about it. The value at which a seller is willing to sell and a buyer is willing to buy is $745,000. That is the definition of market value. And that’s why it’s truly bizarre to see the assessment today on this house at $381,000. (Assessing this home at 51.2% of its market value.)

From the City assessors web site:

Real Estate Assessments are required by the Codes of Virginia and the City of Charlottesville to be at 100% of fair market value.  Assessments are made each year by the City Assessor’s Office and are effective January 1.

and

As required, the City’s assessment is an estimate of fair market value as of January 1 each year, based on property sales for the previous calendar year.

The City breaks down the city into neighborhoods and then samples that neighborhood to determine what is happening price wise over the course of the year. Then, barring changes to a home, they apply a % change to all the houses in that neighborhood. There are certainly some places where there is more specific work being done, but in general, this is the practice. I pulled up a sampling of 10 homes in the neighborhood that is bounded by Rugby Road, Emmett Street, Westview Road, and Wayside Place. The tax assessments I pulled changed from -4.68% to -4.7%. You can’t tell me that is an accident. So, the question is, how accurate is this practice. I would say we can bicker about whether -4.7% is the correct amount, but in general, I agree with the practice. If my neighbor’s home goes up 5% or down 3%, it is fairly accurate to say mine did too — UNLESS one of us has done improvements or allowed our house to waste away, in which case, they certainly change at different rates.

So, I focused on this one neighborhood and pulled every house that sold in 2012 to see if the new 2013 assessments were accurate for these homes. Nine homes total ranging in sales price from $367,000 to $1,250,000. How’d they do? Mixed Bag.

  • 938 Rosser Lane – Sold for $367,500 – Assessed for $443,600 – 121% of Sale Price
  • 901 Rosser Lane – Sold for $450,000 – Assessed for $449,200 – Spot On.
  • 1865 Field Road – Sold for $469,000 – Assessed for $511,900 – 109% of Sale Price
  • 1825 Edgewood Lane – Sold for $530,000 – Assessed for $734,100 – 139% of Sale Price — (NOTE: On the market for nearly a year)
  • 1859 Wayside Place – Sold for $706,000 – Assessed for $590,000 – 84% of Sale Price
  • 1863 Wayside Place – Sold for $745,000 – Assessed for $381,600 – 51% of Sale Price
  • 920 Rosser Lane – Sold for $753,000 – Assessed for $735,000 – 98% of Sale Price
  • 1872 Edgewood Lane – Sold for 890,000 – Assessed for $778,800 – 88% of Sale Price
  • 1820 Edgewood Lane – Sold for $1,250,000 – Assessed for $993,000 – 79% of Sale Price

Don’t get me wrong, I totally respect the fact that assessing homes that the City has likely never been in is extremely hard. And I respect the fact that the city has a good process. But no one can argue that a group of nine homes that all sold in the past year, arguably the easiest homes to assess, range in values compared to their sale price from 51% to 139% all in the same neighborhood is anything close to useful, valuable, or accurate.

My point here is not to say that all assessments are bad, or that we should be challenging every one. What I want people to realize is that basing listing and offering prices on City (or County) assessments is dangerous. While it can be a guide, and certainly should be considered, it has to be a single tool of many in pricing a home. We look at comps all day long. And the price you paid four years ago for your home will affect its sale price far more than the new City assessments. Prices in the Venable neighborhood did not go down 4.7% this week with the new assessments. The only thing that changed is that the taxes these home owners will pay went down by 4.7%.