Is your property tax assessment too high?

March 16, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
With home values deteriorating, you might think your property tax would decline as well. However, that wasn't the case for a Sebastopol family who contacted 7 On Your Side.

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The Carreras of Sebastopol have the worst of both worlds. Their official government assessment is going up while their property value is going down.

The Carreras live on a half-acre lot in a modest 720-square foot home in Sebastopol. What happened when they received their property assessment left them both concerned and confused.

"Something's got to happen," said Michelle Carreras. "Something's got to give."

Michelle and her husband Joaquin purchased the home four years ago for $450,000. Recently, when trying to refinance, they were told their home had gone down in value. She says several appraisers backed that up, and one put it in writing, estimating the home is now worth 20 percent less or $360,000.

Armed with that information, the couple asked the county for a property tax reduction twice, and twice were told "no."

The county assessor insisted the home had gone up in value to $480,000.

"If they can't say you can't refinance and you have to pay the same amount of taxes that your house is worth more," said Michelle.

And that is tax money the family can't afford to pay. Like many in the Bay Area, they are teetering on the edge and could lose their home if their mortgage isn't modified.

"I mean you work so hard to have a little something," said Michelle.

Marc Lumer is a certified public accountant and has successfully challenged several assessments in the past.

"If you were reasonable, the counties in my experience are reasonable and rational," said Lumer.

He suggested going back to the county and filing an informal appeal. So 7 On Your Side did that for the Carreras, contacting the tax assessor's office asking for another review.

"There's always folks out there that either thought we didn't reduce it enough, after we re-reviewed, maybe we've done it twice and they want a third time, or there could be properties that we just didn't get to," said Bill Rosseau, chief deputy assessor for Sonoma County.

In fact, since property values started declining in the last quarter of 2007, the number of people formally appealing their assessment and requesting a hearing has tripled from 350 in 2006 to 1,142 appeals in 2008.

Impressive numbers, but many still suspect there could be something else at play -- the need for tax money. But Rosseau denies the county is keeping assessments high to fill the county coffers. He says his staff just can't review all the properties that need to be looked at.

"We're a declining staff. We're subject to budget cuts as well. We haven't really hired appraisers for a while," said Rousseau. "We don't have the manpower to do what we need to do."

Still, he agreed to re-review the Carreras property, which he called a "unique situation" --a large rural lot with a small home.

A reassessment is tough since there are no similar properties nearby. So Rosseau went beyond the neighborhood to find comps, and when he did, the Carreras home assessment was dropped to $353.000 and their tax bill lowered by $1,300.

"It would help, definitely help," said Michelle.

We surveyed all nine counties in the greater Bay Area, and it appears at least eight counties will be automatically reassessing the values of thousands of homes before the next tax bill.

So what should you do if you think your property tax assessment should be lowered? We have detailed information, here.

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