Thursday, July 27, 2006

Who Makes More, You or Your House?

Last year my house increased in value by $95,000, according to my local tax assessment. The joke in the Washington, D.C. area is that your house could make more than you do in a year. When it comes to the annual tax bill increase, however, it's not very funny.

Fairfax County, VA (yes, home to the Final Four surprise George Mason University Patriots basketball team), is a tough location in which to purchase and maintain property, especially when it comes to the real estate tax rosters. The county has enjoyed several years of huge jumps in tax assessments, meaning tax income, and have only just recently reduced the tax rate by 13-cents last year. Thus, my tax bill only goes up $950 this year (that would be $79.16 per month on my mortgage payment.)

Now, while the Board of Supervisors would contend -- "well, it's ONLY $79 per month," I contend it's been increasing that way for several years. I am now paying $2,785.95 more per year on my tax bill than I was five years ago. But I digress.

This column is about how you can access your tax records (and your neighbor's) to keep up with information about your property (at least from the county/city's perspective) about such issues as your tax bill, home size, etc.

A few years ago, the best website to search tax assessments from around the country was maintained by a grad student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Apparently, soon after I printed that a few years ago, the grad student graduated and the site went stale and is now off the Internet radar.

However, a plethora of sites have arisen in its place. First check with your county/city to see if they have placed the records online. Then look elsewhere. Many commercial records sites require membership and a fee, but most are free for limited information and then a fee for more details. Searching through the main search engines returns upwards to 50 million sites for "property tax records." Your best bet in narrowing the search is to simply enter your county and city name in the search as well.

For small towns and counties, you may still have to research your tax records the old fashioned way -- go to the courthouse and look them up. But for a growing number of jurisdictions, the process of digitizing the records is becoming so affordable, that it appears soon most jurisdictions will have the records online.

If your records are available online, pull them up as soon as possible. Next to your credit report, this is another piece of information every homeowner should look over at least once a year, primarily, to make sure the tax assessor got it right. I have seen some tax records with such erroneous information, that the homeowner could protest the record and get thousands of dollars back from the jurisdiction. (The process of appealing your record is determined by every jurisdiction's rules and regs, of course, but don't let the records come in and sit there -- look them up and find out if your house actually matches the county's description.)

Another good thing about the tax records is to check up on a home seller marketing the property. Sometimes, the agent/owner may get a little "positive" about the property. A "bedroom" may actually be an office/den/bonus room if it doesn't have a regulation egress. The lot they're touting as a third acre(.33), may actually be just a little larger than a quarter acre (.25). While it may not sound like much, the .08 difference, makes up about a third more land, which could affect the price.

When you're looking at a house that has an addition or finished basement, if the tax record doesn't reflect those changes, you may have an addition and finished basement that was installed without permits -- and that means without building and safety inspections.
Get to know your tax record and you'll get to know your house even better.

Published: March 31, 2006

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