OPINION: Nothing appealing about Atlanta property taxes

Property taxes across the metro area are likely to rise this year. Many residents who received an annual notice of assessment in June wondered whether they should appeal the valuations.  KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC FILE PHOTO

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Property taxes across the metro area are likely to rise this year. Many residents who received an annual notice of assessment in June wondered whether they should appeal the valuations. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC FILE PHOTO

When property tax assessments hit mailboxes in June, a collective outcry could be read in neighborhood chats from North Fulton to southeast Atlanta.

One Atlanta resident who has lived in the same home for decades noted a 75% increase in the fair market value. That was about the highest increase that I’ve heard; my 37% increase was minor by comparison.

Most neighbors with double-digit increases in the valuation of their homes offered the same advice: appeal, appeal, appeal.

But we know by now that nothing about property taxes in metro Atlanta is appealing. Most residents will see their tax bills go up.

ExploreTax assessor: Cobb home values jumped an average of $66K in 2021

In 2021, a year when home prices across the nation shot up by 16%, property tax increases were relatively modest, said Rick Sharga, executive vice president of market intelligence for ATTOM Data Solutions, a provider of real estate and property data. Between 2020 and 2021, property values in metro Atlanta increased 42% which led to an 11% increase in the average property tax bill.

Sharga said he believes tax assessments lagged behind rising property values which has set the scene for assessments to go up in 2022.

In Fulton County, the average property tax is $5,052, the highest in the metro area. Compare that to $3,444 in Gwinnett, $3,322 in DeKalb and $2,759 in Cobb, where the average increase in assessed value ballooned to $66,091 this year, about double that county’s average annual increase over the last four years.

ExploreAbout 83% of Gwinnett property values changed due to market

The tax amount is determined by the appraised and assessed value of homes. After homestead exemptions and floating homestead exemptions — exemptions that increase to prevent taxable values from exceeding a certain percentage — are applied to specific taxes and subtracted from the assessed home value, the remaining taxable amount is multiplied by the current millage rate ― the amount a homeowner has to pay for every $1,000 of a property’s assessed value — to determine the amount of city and county taxes owed.

Residents in online chat forums wondered whether they should file an appeal even if they can afford to pay the additional taxes or if they know their home has been fairly assessed. Experts say it depends.

“Nobody likes it when their bills go up,” said Carl Wynne, founder of Georgia Tax Appeals. But if it looks like it will be a significant increase, it is worth appealing, he said, particularly if the property owner is not entitled to homestead exemptions. “Anybody who is not homesteaded should be appealing,” Wynne said.

ExploreProperty taxes throughout DeKalb set to rise amid inflation squeeze

Jeff George, senior property tax advisor and owner of KLM Property Tax Solutions in Lawrenceville said that if you have never appealed or haven’t appealed in five or six years, you should appeal regardless of any specific situation.

“I am looking at 2022 and home values are not cooling off. If the market goes up six more percent in 2023, they are going to adjust your market value again. I don’t think we are going to see any relief until 2024,” he said.

Appealing means making a case to the tax assessor in your county about why the valuation of your home should be reduced. Successful appeals dig into the details, George said. “The tax assessor works off a mass appraisal methodology,” he said. “We cross reference properties so we can see the difference.” If the tax assessor has made errors, such as giving the wrong square footage of the home, the assessor should make the correction and might provide a retroactive refund, George said.

ExploreCherokee residents can appeal their assessments

George estimates that Fulton County has some 20,000 appeals each year, 99% of which end up before the Board of Equalization, citizen panels that make determinations on property valuation appeals. Once an appeal goes to the Board of Equalizations, the valuation remains locked for two subsequent years.

When real estate values are skyrocketing, stopping incremental increases is a good tax management strategy even if you don’t get a reduction, said Wynne.

I read several tragic stories about longtime residents who saw the value of their homes increase significantly despite living in older houses with no central heat or air conditioning and no renovations apart from routine home maintenance. Some of them are older residents who said they were overwhelmed by the confusing and intimidating appeals process.

The process of appealing should be easier, and the most vulnerable residents should have better access to assistance, both of which can help demystify the complexities of property taxes.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.