Appeals mostly down for metro Atlanta property values

Fewer folks in metro Atlanta's large counties have challenged their property values this year. Appraisers hope the drop signals they have more accurate assessments, but more likely it is a calm after years of storm.

From Fulton to Gwinnett counties, appeals appear to be down by at least 16 percent from last year. Only the smaller counties of Clayton and Cherokee have seen increases, according to information from appraisers' offices.

County appraisers, tax consultants and advocates all agree officials are getting a better handle on values even as the region's housing market continues to struggle.

But there's another big reason for this year's decline: Property owners who filed a record number of appeals in recent years got a three-year freeze on values if they succeeded. Those who won a lower value in 2011 — a record year for appeals in several counties as a new state law took effect — can skip appeals until 2014, when appeals could again jump.

"If you can really sell your property for what the county says it's worth, you need to not complain," said Larry Singleton, a former Cherokee County commissioner and founder of My Property Tax Appeal, a business that helps people with their appeals. "You can take some time away from the game."

That could give county appraisers, who were inundated with appeals a year ago, more time to focus on gauging values instead of defending their conclusions. But playing defense also can improve calculations.

"On one hand, I'm elated to have fewer appeals to deal with," said DeKalb County Chief Appraiser Calvin Hicks. "On the other, I tell everyone with a question to appeal, because it gives us a better sense of values going forward."

The process is ongoing, with county appraisers required to estimate yearly what a home or business will sell for on the open market.

Several Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations in recent years have found residential appraisals across the region are too high, meaning homeowners pay too much in property taxes.

Lance Lamberton is among those who appealed in recent years. Last year, typical residential appraisals were 13 percent too high in Cobb, according to the AJC investigation. But Lamberton said his Austell home is frozen at $115,000 — about where he and the county have agreed it belongs.

"I would expect the number of appeals will naturally go down as long as the values are reasonable," Lamberton said. "But if the appeals process is lengthy, cumbersome or overly bureaucratic, some people will just throw up their hands and say they don't want to deal with it."

Delays and problems have plagued the appraisal process in DeKalb and Fulton since a new state law required counties to send all property owners an assessment notice and estimate of taxes every year.

DeKalb admitted making bad calculations on 6,000 of its 230,000 properties this year, requiring new notices be sent. As many as 3,000 others were still in appeal from 2011 when the county sent out the bulk of its notices earlier this year.

Mistakes were far more rampant in Fulton, where the county had to resend 230,000 notices last year to fix wrong and omitted information.

Chief Appraiser David Fitzgibbon said in an email that the county is still entering appeal information but projects about 20,000 challenges this year — a 47 percent plunge from last year.

Fitzgibbon did not respond to follow-up phone calls for additional comment, but the director of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation doesn't buy such a dramatic decline.

"Most people who appealed last year are appealing this year because they don't trust the system," Barbara Payne said.

She added that the foundation calculated an 1,100 percent spike in appeals in Fulton between 2007 and 2011, far outweighing a one-year decline. "I'm very confident there will be a hefty number of appeals this year once they get past estimating and get to hard numbers."

Still, even one county that saw an increase of appeals would have seen a drop if not for a peculiar local situation. Cherokee Chief Appraiser John Adams said 64 percent of appeals there this year came for empty lots where developers didn't file timely property tax returns to secure lower values.

And Clayton's chief appraiser said the jump there came for the same reason as many of those appeals elsewhere last year.

"The recurring theme is that people are not appealing their values but are appealing their taxes," Rodney McDaniel said. "They don't always notice their value as long as their taxes are down."

Appeals of property values

County/2011 Appeals/2012 Appeals/Change

Cherokee 2,800 3,100 +10.7%

Clayton 8,700 9,700 +11.5%

Cobb 11,000 8,300 -24.5%

DeKalb 20,000 15,000 -25.0%

Fulton 38,000 20,000 -47.4%

Gwinnett 31,000 26,000 -16.1%

Source: County appraiser offices, including estimates and rounded figures. Deadlines for appeals have passed in all six counties.