Last year’s Allegheny County real estate reassessment caused outrage among homeowners. More than 100,000 property owners felt so strongly that the County had valued their property higher than its true value, that they appealed their assessment. In order to be successful in that fight, the homeowners had to provide the County with information showing that their home was not worth as much as the County said it was. The evidence presented by homeowners included pictures of the property, sales prices of homes in the neighborhood and estimates for necessary home repairs. The best-prepared homeowners came to their assessment appeal hearing armed with an appraisal.
Some of those best-prepared homeowners were shocked when they received the results of their appeal and saw that they had lost. They did not understand how they lost when they presented what the County told them was the best evidence possible and when no other evidence was presented by the other side, the taxing authorities. Some were so upset that in January 2013 they filed a class-action lawsuit asking that the County be required to lower their assessment to the value stated in the appraisal if no other evidence was submitted to show that the appraisal was wrong. Last week, Judge Wettick ruled that Allegheny County does not have to accept the value of every appraisal as truth. Why? Because there are some really bad appraisals out there.
I have seen a lot of appraisals during my time helping homeowners appeal their Allegheny County real estate assessment here at Steidl and Steinberg. Let me assure you that not all appraisers and not all appraisals are created equal. Some are much better than others.
Here are some of the most common problems I see with appraisals:
- The appraisal is outdated. You should not use an appraisal that is more than two years old. An appraisal that is less than a year old is best.
- The appraisal was done in order to buy the house or to refinance a mortgage. Whenever an appraisal is done to get you approved for financing, the appraiser usually tries to make the value of the house as high as possible to enable you to borrow as much money as possible. Therefore, sometimes the values of these appraisals are too high and you could not actually sell the house for that much money. When appealing your assessment, it is important for the appraisal to reflect the amount you could actually sell the house for. Otherwise, you will end up paying too much in real estate taxes. An appraisal that was performed specifically for a tax assessment appeal is best.
- The appraiser was did not go into the house. The condition of your home is one of the biggest factors affecting the value. An appraiser cannot determine the condition of your home without going inside where many of the problems may lie. By going inside a home, an appraiser can see if there is a dampness issue the basement, old wiring, worn carpet, a dated kitchen or cracks in the plaster. All of these things will have an impact on value. Your appraiser should always do a thorough inspection of the interior and exterior of your home and take lots of pictures to be included in the appraisal report.
- The appraiser used less than ideal comparable sales. The whole idea of an appraisal is to make an educated guess as to what your house would sell for if you put it on the market today in its current condition. Since you are not putting your house on the market today, the best way to estimate your home’s sales price is to look at similar houses that have sold recently in your area. Ideally, comparable sales will be within one mile of your house, in the same municipality, in the same school district, have similar characteristics as your home and will have sold in the past year. While it is not always possible to find three or more comparable sales that meet these criteria, I have seen some appraisals in which the appraiser either did not try or was very unsuccessful in finding truly comparable properties. This makes the appraised value nothing more than an uneducated guess and therefore, not good evidence for fighting a real estate tax assessment.
Do not let Judge Wettick’s ruling or my warnings about bad appraisals stop you from getting one in order to fight your Allegheny County property tax assessment. An appraisal is still the best evidence that you can use and there are some really great appraisers out there that do very good work. If you choose to go to your assessment appeal hearing with a bad or outdated appraisal, do not be surprised when you lose.