Despite metro Atlanta’s position among the areas most deeply mired in the nation’s housing crisis, some areas of DeKalb County have seen double-digit increases in property assessments, some even more than 100 percent.
The county now admits overvaluing as many as 4,000 homes that it will begin reassessing later this week. Up to 1,500 properties in Decatur alone will be reassessed after complaints from residents and officials there, the city's mayor, Bill Floyd, said Wednesday.
Assessors still defend other increases, some of them by nearly 60 percent, in some older neighborhoods near major job hubs in central DeKalb. Being close to work has pushed values up, as has sales where buyers tear down aging ranch houses and split-levels to make way for intown McMansions.
“We are not perfect, but we are trying to recognize what the market says is happening,” Chief Appraiser Calvin Hicks said of the nearly 250,000 parcels his office recently assessed. “Overall, the market is down, but there are areas where people pay a premium to live.”
Chief among those areas are spots in Decatur as well as communities near Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Assessments are up across most of those areas, even though countywide values have slid 8 percent this year.
The increases in these pockets put pressure on residents such as William Blackwood. The teacher -- whose Decatur neighborhood has witnessed a number of tear-downs in favor of larger, pricier homes -- has seen the value of his house rise 31 percent, driven by a new assessment that nearly tripled the worth of the land his house sits on.
“Their behavior really makes the case that they’re trying to milk some areas for money because they’re broke,” Blackwood said, referring to the county. This year’s overall decline followed a 13 percent decrease in countywide value last year.
State rules call for Georgia’s counties to estimate the fair market value of properties every year, calculating what a home or business could sell for on the open market. Other metro counties, in doing estimates in hot areas, use the same tactic as DeKalb, giving greater weight to the value of the land and its location at the expense of the structure that occupies it.
Every county has its hot spots, even if they don’t have large universities or government offices to draw people. In Gwinnett County, for example, appraisers place greater value on properties close to highways because the county’s residents tend to face longer commutes, Chief Appraiser Steve Pruitt said.
Still, several Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations in recent years have found that residential property appraisals in the metro area are too high. That means many homeowners pay too much in property taxes.
In December, the AJC found the typical residential property appraisal in DeKalb was 10 percent too high in 2011. Typical residential appraisals in other counties also were too high, including Clayton County (29 percent above market value), Gwinnett County (16 percent), Cobb County (13 percent) and Fulton County (7 percent).
Across the metro area, assessments are drawing more concern this year, the first time in three years that values can go up after a statewide freeze. As a result, some affluent areas are seeing increases.
This year, out of about 331,000 assessments, Fulton raised values on 28,000. Of Gwinnett's 271,000 assessments, it bumped up values on about 3,700. Cobb reports 1,400 increases out of about 230,000 assessments.
DeKalb residents warn, though, that not every stable neighborhood has the potential to be the next hot spot.
Take Briarmoor Manor. Many of the houses tucked between Northlake Mall and I-85 saw values soar because of jumps in land prices.
Bill Layburn’s ranch home across the street from Hawthorne Elementary School is among them. The three bedrooms offer plenty of space for the retired engineer and his wife, but if they wanted to sell, the next buyer would have to accept the property as is, not as a future construction site.
Layburn’s home is in an overlay district, which doesn’t allow the massive new homes that have driven up values. Even so, Layburn's assessment is up 54 percent this year.
“Last year they said it was worth $290,000, and that was still too high,” he said. “To say it’s gone up even more, there is no way.”
The county’s Board of Assessors meets Thursday to address one remedy to problems like Layburn’s with the expected reassessment of thousands of homes.
Hicks stands by the majority of appraisals but says individual homes still may be overvalued. So for those who don’t get a revaluation, the fix is an appeal. All homeowners have 45 days to file an appeal, or until early July.
But Layburn is skeptical that an appeal, or even a reassessment, will help. The county, which raised the tax rate 26 percent a year ago, likely won’t want to cut values so much it would need to raise taxes again in an election year.
“I just don’t have confidence in the politicians of DeKalb County," Layburn said. "They’ve tried cutting their budgets a little bit, but they still need money.”
Hicks said his office is simply trying to get as close as possible to market values. The challenge is getting each property right when doing a mass appraisal instead of individual ones, a stance supported by a professional who makes his living challenging values.
Ernie Cole, a consultant with Equitax Property Tax Advisors, specializes in DeKalb properties. This year, he’s heard from a woman in the Oak Grove area of central DeKalb who saw her home’s value grow from $700,000 to $1.7 million.
That, Cole said, was clearly an error that Hicks’ office is already addressing. More common are the homes from the central part of the county south, where the dollar figures aren’t as high but the values can be off by 50 percent.
In Oak Grove, where land is tight and jobs are close, values likely have gone up a bit after holding steady through most of the recession, Cole said. But there will be mistakes even for those that might see an increase, he added.
“In a mass appraisal, there will always be properties that fall through the cracks,” Cole said. “It’s hard to keep up with the volume, but in my experience, DeKalb has done their best to get it right and fix it when it’s not.”
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