Systemic problems in system of property assessments

Last year, my wife and I were the lucky winners of a 221-percent property assessment increase.

We decided to appeal and I set out to uncover the hidden mysteries of property assessments. I started by comparing the 2017 appraisals of 16 adjacent pieces of land in our neighborhood, and discovered a mind-boggling 221-percent value increase to a 33 percent decrease for 16 properties.

These up/down percentages are surprising because we all live on a dirt road, subject to a Critical Area Ordinance, and in an “erosion and landslide hazard area.” The land cannot be touched without a permit and has not changed for the last 30 years — except for two road cave-ins and a landslide destroying our house in 1997.

I discovered that our .60-acre land was assessed at $317,060 for 2017. The .69-acre land right next door, a carbon copy of our lot, was assessed at $211,900 but sold last year for $140,000. Which of these three values are real?

The deeper I dug, the “curiouser and curiouser” it got. Ultimately, I realized that our complaint was rather insignificant compared to the systemic assessment problems.

I found that folks with large properties get a substantial assessment discount. Our neighbor to the south owns 3.5 acres and is assessed at $154,000 per acre. Our .60-acre “landslide hazard” lot is assessed at $528,000 per acre.

I also found a one-acre lot assessed $120,000 higher than a three-acre lot — both of the same quality.

I learned that property values are based on “comparable or similar sales.” However, “comparable” sales, in our case, were miles away and the sales prices were double our own assessed property value.

Among the 16 properties researched, I found assessment differences from $154,000 to $662,000 per acre on a short 1,660 foot dirt road. This all seems quite crazy.

Armed with photographs and a comparison study, we met with the Board of Equalization.

I suggested a more logical assessment method, a standard based on three common denominators: Size (acre), quality and location (neighborhood). An established real estate business practice.

Assessor: If no neighborhood sale exists, find a base property value. Example: In our neighborhood, the land for a one-acre property is presently appraised at $367,520. This number could be used as a base for all other lot appraisals in proportion to their sizes and qualities. This approach would also prevent such absurd -33 percent to +221 percent changes and a time-consuming search for “comparable” properties.

The appraiser at the board meeting told us: “We don’t do things this way.” I suggested they at least contemplate improvements.

The traditional assessment method, is just too subjective, too arbitrary and, potentially, too unfair.

We did “win,” but tax obligations should never be open to interpretation.

James Behrend

Bainbridge Island