Gina and Michael Schwartz got a nasty surprise when their DeKalb County tax assessment arrived in the mail recently.
According to the county assessor’s office, the value of their Brookhaven home rose 10 percent from last year to $318,300, though they’ve made no improvements and don’t think that’s what the market will bear. Now they’re worried about the property tax bill that will come this fall.
“It’s unfair,” Gina Schwartz complained at a recent meeting that detailed how to appeal assessments. “Why are we paying bigger taxes when nothing changed? That’s a big jump. I don’t want to pay more money.”
The Schwartzes are among tens of thousands of metro Atlanta homeowners learning their tax assessments increased this year, which could mean paying more when property taxes are due.
In four of the five largest metro counties, the total taxable value of residential property is up 7 percent to 11 percent, a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. Some properties are up much more.
The exception was Fulton County, where residential values rose just 2.6 percent. The increase for individual properties varies widely.
County appraisers say the assessments reflect a resurgent real estate market that has shaken off the Great Recession. If sales prices rise, so do tax values, they say.
Even some professionals who specialize in appealing tax assessments say many taxpayers will have to adjust to new market realities.
Each year, county assessors must determine the value of tens or hundreds of thousands of properties for tax purposes, using real estate sales data and statistical methods. Those values — along with tax rates set by elected officials — determine the size of annual property tax bills.
In the wake of the Great Recession, a series of AJC investigations found typical tax assessments were too high — assessors failed to cut values fast enough to keep up with the plummeting real estate market.
But as the market recovered, the AJC found typical assessments in many areas were too low, reflecting the reality that tax assessments usually lag behind market trends.
Calvin Hicks, DeKalb’s chief appraiser, said his goal is for assessments to match prices that properties would fetch on the open market. He said residents should understand that rising assessments are driven by actual sale prices, not by a need to fatten the county government’s tax base.
“Our primary charge is to value properties and keep those values in line with whatever the market has done,” Hicks said
Many individual properties may still be overvalued, and homeowners can appeal their assessments.
Frank Yodonis, who lives in a house in Tucker that was built in 1962, has seen his property assessment rise 55 percent over the last two years. The county said Yodonis’ home was worth $127,000 two years ago, but it’s now valued at $197,300.
“It’s just nuts the way this is going,” Yodonis said. “Where are these numbers coming from, and what’s behind this? Are they trying to balance the budget on the backs of taxpayers?”
Many may sense their assessments are too high. But property owners need hard data — like the sale prices of comparable nearby properties — to make their case.
“You’d better come in with some good ammunition,” said Larry Singleton, who owns Woodstock-based My Property Tax Appeal.
There are plenty of people who think they can make a case. Some of them attended the recent property appeals meeting hosted by Engel & Volkers real estate in Brookhaven.
Sharon Brekke, who is living on a fixed income, said the giant leap in her Brookhaven home’s assessed value — from $262,200 to $401,600 — could raise her taxes so much that she’d be forced to move.
“They’ll price me out of the area in a place I’ve lived for so many years. I’m not happy,” she said of the 53 percent increase in her assessment. “I haven’t made any changes in the house, and its value increases.”
Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, an attorney who provided information about appealing assessments at the meeting, urged push back if the valuations are wrong.
“Do your research and get comparables (sales) from 2015,” Ernst said. “Look at your neighbors and their square footage and match it up to demonstrate differences that are unfair.”
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