Tim Cain has a bird’s eye view of Swain County’s real estate market, and from where he sits, the news looks good.

Cain was hired to oversee the countywide appraisal of every home, lot and tract of land in Swain County, a periodic exercise used to determine property taxes. His firm, the Raleigh-based Assessment Solutions, has visited more than 85 percent of the properties in Swain County during the past nine months. His expert assessment: property values in the county have bottomed out and are now on the rise.

“There has been a leveling off, and I am really excited to see what happens this spring,” Cain said. “It appears that they (property values) have stopped falling.”

Although the numbers are nowhere near those shown in the 2009 revaluation, property values are close to pre-recession numbers recorded during the 2005 reval — a positive sign considering the plunge the market took during the past few years.

“It has picked up, and we are feeling optimistic that is will continue,” said Kelly Stribling, president of the North Jackson County Board of Realtors, a local board that includes Swain County. “(But) It is certainly not like it was.”

Homeowners are slowly starting to buy and sell property, though many must still reduce their asking price if they want anyone to bite.

“There is a slight decrease in pricing,” Stribling said. “Some homeowners and sellers if they really want to move the property, they drop the price.”

But, people are still willing to pay a good price for a nice home, she added.

Cain agreed, saying that a nice chalet near the picturesque Nantahala Gorge or Fontana Lake will likely see an increase in value since the last approved revaluation in 2005. Meanwhile, homes in Bryson City seem to have remained steady when compared to the 2005 reval.

“If you’ve got a house in Bryson City, we really haven’t changed much,” Cain said. “The numbers that we are seeing now closely mirror the numbers we saw in 2005.”

Commercial lots will likely see an increase overall, while vacant lots, which were once destined to become subdivisions, will still lose some value.

“You’ve got a lot of subdivisions; they’ve got the infrastructure in place; (and) they are just sitting there,” Cain said.

People had bought, what were then, choice pieces of property at a premium and made plans for development. Then, the housing bubble burst, and the properties have since sat vacant, waiting.

“People are waiting out the economy,” Cain said. “They were demanding top dollar for their lots. And today, you’ve got developments that have gone bust.”

The last few years have been “a scary time” for people who need or want to sell property, Cain said.

Property owners’ hesitancy to put their lot on the market, and people’s reservations about buying have made it more difficult revaluate parcels, a process which is based partially on the sale price of adjoining properties.

Realtors and property assessors are seeing only about one-third of the transactions that they saw five years ago, Cain said.

Each property revaluation is specifically tailored to an individual county and even a specific part of the county.

“There is a specific reason that people go to Swain County,” Cain said. “It is a distinct place.”

The market value is determined by how much the property has depreciated, how much nearby properties sold for and how any improvements affect the property’s worth. A homeowner may spend $10,000 adding an in-ground pool, but the addition is essentially worthless unless it is deemed a valued amenity by homebuyers. The same is true for a $40,000 kitchen renovation. It is only as valuable as buyers in Swain County believe it to be.

 

Do-over of Swain’s reval a good call

Swain County commissioners seem to have made the right decision when they decided to throw out the results of its countywide property revaluation in 2009 and call for a do-over.

The 2009 revaluation captured a snapshot of Swain County real estate values during the height of a market boom — and before everything went bust.

It takes about two years to appraise every home, lot and tract of land in the county, so that 2009 appraisal largely drew on 2007 values, when the market was still hopping.

Since someone’s property value dictates how much they pay in taxes, a bunk appraisal based on no longer valid real estate values would have skewed what people legitimately should have paid in taxes.

So commissioner tossed out the results and decided to try again in a few years. That time is now here, and the appraiser leading the process said commissioners made the right call to hold off.

The 2009 reval that was tossed out would have posted a 30 percent increase to property values on average since 2005.

The do-over of the reval underway now shows instead of increasing, values are pretty much on par with where they were in 2005.

“The numbers are significantly lower than they would have been during that (2009) revaluation,” said Tim Cain, president of the Raleigh-based Assessment Solutions.

Jackson leaders will likely pushback a countywide property revaluation from next year to 2016 following a strong recommendation by their tax man.

“Truthfully, if you want this thing done and you want it done right, we don’t have an adequate timeline,” Tax Assessor Bobby McMahan told commissioners last week. “The more time we have, the better quality our work is going to be.”

Commissioners had instructed McMahan and his staff to move forward with a revaluation in 2013, which was already one year later than originally planned.

In a revaluation, every home, lot and tract of land is assigned a new property value to reflect the going real estate market — a value that in turn dictates how much people pay in property taxes.

Several residents made a public appeal to commissioners earlier this month to delay the revaluation beyond 2013. Falling real estate prices for high-end homes means affluent property owners will see their taxes come down in a revaluation, and the burden would be redistributed to the county’s middle-class residents.

Most of the property tax burden is currently shouldered by property owners in Cashiers-Glenville area, dominated by high-end resorts and second- and third-homes. Delaying the revaluation means the county could continue could taxing these high-end properties at an inflated book value.

But that isn’t the reason the county is giving for the delay. McMahan said there simply is a lack of sales data — not enough homes and lots being bought and sold — for the county to know what the going rate is for property.

The drop in sales is staggering: there are 444 sales from the past three years that could be considered for the revaluation, noted Commissioner Mark Jones who is from the Cashiers-Glenville area. That, McMahan added, compares to nearly 8,000 property transactions during the last revaluation period.

“It just makes our position of trying to proceed less defensible,” Chairman Jack Debnam, a real estate agent in real life, said of the woeful sales numbers.

The lack of sales makes it difficult to set accurate values that Jackson County could defend in potentially costly legal appeals. Property owners who disagree with a county’s revaluation have the legal right to challenge on a state level. Counties must be able to prove how they arrived at property values by using data from actual sales.

“Would you say the big driver is the lack of sales?” Commissioner Doug Cody asked in reiteration of the shifting county position about when exactly to conduct a revaluation.

“That data is the most important thing you have to have,” McMahan said in reply.

“If postponed, what portion of your work would be in vain? How much of that would still be used?” Commissioner Charles Elders asked McMahan.

“None of it is in vain,” the tax assessor said in response. “You never truly quit, never totally stop working on revaluation.”

“And to do the job you should do, you really need this (extra) time,” Elders said. “You don’t need guess work?”

“Right, you don’t need to guess,” McMahan said in reply.

Tax Assessor Richard Lightner in neighboring Macon County successfully encouraged commissioners there to delay until 2015, the legal eight-year span allowable since the county’s last revaluation in 2007. He, too, cited likely indefensible legal action in his recommendation.

Haywood County, unlike counties farther to the west, moved forward with a revaluation last year after postponing it by just one year. Property values on a whole remained flat, although there was variation between types of property and neighborhood. Haywood does not have nearly the same volume of high-end second homes, however.

Swain County did a revaluation two years ago but tossed the results out. It will conduct a revaluation in 2014.

Jackson County commissioners plan this week to discuss the upcoming property revaluation, though it remains unclear whether they will postpone the process as some residents are requesting.

In a revaluation, every home, lot and tract of land is assigned a new property value to reflect the going real estate market — a value that in turn dictates how much people pay in property taxes. But, the volatile real estate market has led many counties to postpone revaluations.

Jackson County has postponed its revaluation until 2013, but Tax Assessor Bobby McMahan has suggested waiting a couple more years. McMahan plans to give a report on the issue during a commissioner work session Jan. 13.

The market value of high-priced lots and homes are destined to fall in a countywide revaluation. Delaying the reval means the county can continue taxing high-end properties at inflated book value. Going ahead with the reval would shift property tax burden to median-priced properties as those are more likely to hold their value while the high-end properties fall — and that’s what Jackson County residents are protesting.

“You will be negatively impacting the lower-income families,” said Avram Friedman, an environmental advocate in Sylva.

Allen Lomax, a local real estate agent, told Jackson County commissioners a property revaluation “will definitely” have the most wallop on the wallets of the less affluent in the county.

While Macon and Swain have postponed their revaluations for a couple more years, Haywood County went ahead with its last year.

Counties must do a revaluation every eight years, which wouldn’t be until 2016 for Jackson.

Carol Odom of the Glenville community views the situation from another angle. She told commissioners that she’s neither rich nor under-taxed. Odom said she’s seen 75 percent of her income evaporate because of the dour economy. She believes homeowners shouldn’t be paying taxes based on false property values but that the whole county should “share their pain.”

“I hope you do revaluate, and that it gets shared all across the county — everyone should contribute. I’m not here to support other people financially,” Odom said.

Macon County might postpone revaluating property — again — from 2013 to 2015, a remarkably different response to the crushingly bad housing market than Jackson County is taking.

Richard Lightner, longtime tax assessor for Macon County, said there simply hasn’t been enough property changing hands to set meaningful property values. And most importantly, he said, it would be difficult to set accurate values that Macon County could adequately defend from costly legal appeals. Property owners who disagree with a county’s revaluation have the legal right to challenge on a state level.

By waiting, more selling and buying will have taken place, though Lightner emphasized there’s no crystal ball he’s holding that allows him to read the future — and no guarantees that the market will be better then. Still, just by adding years to the process, one can safely assume some pieces of property will have sold, he said.

Macon and Jackson are similar on the tax fronts because of the communities of Highlands (in Macon) and Cashiers (in Jackson). Both communities are dominated by high-priced, multimillion-dollar homes, at least pre-recession prices. Those homeowners currently shoulder the bulk of the tax burdens in both counties. In Jackson County, by way of example, 57 percent of the tax base is located in just two townships: Cashiers and Hamburg, both in the southern end of the county.

Here is the key issue for taxpayers, the why-you-should-care, bottom-line point: Macon, by likely postponing a revaluation until 2015, would keep the tax burden predominantly on its higher-end residents in Highlands, and spare tax increases for the short term to the county at large. Jackson, by comparison, is looking still to do its revaluation in 2013, which means revaluated property, coupled with a revenue-neutral budget would, almost inevitably, shift the tax burden from the Cashiers area to the less-affluent areas of the county.

“It seemed that most of the pushback about delaying beyond 2013 came from taxpayers in the southern end of the county,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said in explanation. “Property owners in the southern end could see larger declines in tax value while those in the northern end will see smaller declines, which could result in less taxes for the citizens in the southern end versus more taxes for the northern end.”

Revaluations in North Carolina must take place at least every eight years. Jackson County has the option of pushing back until 2016. Macon County must do its revaluation by 2015.

What’s not in question is what revaluation will mean for both counties: declining values when compared to the boom housing years. Jackson County did its last revaluation in 2008, and Macon County in 2007. Both counties opted to postpone revaluation past a four-year cycle, which they’d gone to because escalating land prices were causing sticker shock to taxpayers. This means Jackson County is using property values set in about 2007, and Macon County is using property values determined in 2006.

New values would mean “the $150,000 home on one acre would probably go up; undeveloped land and more expensive home will have a decrease,” Macon County Commissioner Kevin Corbin said in a recent meeting on the revaluation.

And that would shift the tax burden.

“I don’t have a problem with that per se,” said Macon Board Chairman Brian McClellan, who lives in Highlands and works as a financial advisor there. “If a big house loses value, they should get a tax break. My issue is, if we don’t have good comps, then we don’t want to be at risk defending a lot of revaluations we might not be able to defend.”

Corbin said that he does have some questions about whether Macon County should just go forward, like Jackson for now is set on doing, “and let the chips fall where they may.”

“When is our economy going to return? Maybe we are living in the new normal,” Corbin said.

Macon Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former commander of a submarine, said the board should be clear in the message it sends to the county’s citizens.

“I think we can say, with some degree of certainty, where those chips are going to fall,” Kuppers said. “If we do the revaluation (in 2013), we owe it to the people of this county to warn them, ‘Incoming Chips.’”

Lightner added, “Those people you see at the grocery store or getting their car fixed, the burden of the chips are going to fall on their laps.”

Commissioners Ron Haven and Ronnie Beale indicated they would support postponing the revaluation.

“The people this would hit the hardest are the very people who can least afford it,” Beale said.

A vote by commissioners is expected in Macon County next month.

Property in Haywood County is selling 4 percent higher than the new values on the county’s tax books, refuting criticism that the county blanketly appraised property for more than it was worth.

There have been 215 property sales in the first five months of the year. Collectively, they sold for $36.392 million. Those same properties were assessed by county appraisers for a total of $34.97 million.

“The sales numbers speak for themselves,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “Property is selling for a higher price than the revaluation amounts. That would indicate to me the revaluation is accurate.”

The county’s team of appraisers relied on complex formulas to assign each home, lot and tract of land in the county a new value — values which in turn dictate how much people pay for property tax. Critics claim the depressed real estate market should have resulted in lower property values practically across the board compared to the last revaluation five years ago.

But in fact, the revaluation showed half the properties went up and half went down.

“Of course you can find random highs and random lows that sold for more or less. There’s going to be some that are up and some that are down,” said David Francis, head of the county tax department. “You are still going to have that fluctuation in the market. Just because the stock market is down one day doesn’t mean some stocks didn’t still go up that day.”

Francis said he has confidence the revaluation is accurate, and takes solace in the stats showing real estate sales — on the whole — are coming in slightly above the values pegged by the county.

“What we don’t want to see is that sales price below the tax value consistently,” Francis said.

Since property values determine taxes, when the values are too high, people end up paying more than their share of taxes.

 

Putting stock in comp sales

Appraisals were based on comp sales, the selling price of similar homes or lots nearby. Comp sales are epitome of market value: a cold, hard, irrefutable number of what like property actually sold for.

Critics have complained that the county’s comp sales were poorly chosen, and didn’t always compare apples to apples.

For starters, the sluggish real estate market has made for fewer comps to go by.

Horace Edwards of Cruso said appraisers lacked comp sales in his neck of the woods and so cast a wide a net looking for sales in other areas, landing on houses sold miles away for an ultimately rather subjective comparison.

“They were not at all suitable to my property,” Edwards said. “If I went out and traveled around the county in the same manner I could find houses that were the complete opposite of their revaluation.”

Meanwhile, a state of flux has kept everyone — buyers, sellers, banks, appraisers and Realtors alike — guessing what real estate might be worth one month to the next.

“They postponed it last year with the expectation it would be a stable economy this year, which was a fallacy because they didn’t get any improvement at all in the economy,” Edwards said.

Of course, comps aren’t perfect. Maybe the seller threw in the appliances or living room drapes to fetch a higher price. Or maybe they got a job somewhere else and sold for less to move in a hurry.

“That is going to happen every once in a while. We can’t do anything about that,” said Mary Ann Enloe, who sits on the board of equalization and review, her fourth time in the role.

Despite the many appeals — it will take until August to hear them all — the county’s appraised values seem mostly accurate to her.

“Of course the proof is in the pudding. Right now it is tracking really well,” Enloe said, citing the sales numbers.

There’s only one way to tell how right — or wrong — Haywood County’s recent property revaluation is. Appraisers attempt to peg the price of house or lot, predicting what a buyer would pay should a ‘for sale’ sign go up in the yard.

As hackles fly over whether the county’s assessed values are too high or low, the only way to tell for sure is delving into the world of property sales.

The Smoky Mountain News compared the selling price of 84 properties in April and May to the new values assessed by the county. Of those, 20 percent were accurate within a 10 percent margin of error.

Of the 68 whose assessed value was more than 10 percent off the actual selling price, 37 sold for less than their assessed values and 29 of them sold for more.

Property in Maggie, Crabtree, Bethel and Beaverdam were more likely to be overvalued in the county’s appraisal. Property in Waynesville was more likely to be undervalued compared to the sale prices — more likely to fetch a higher selling price than what appraisers had pegged it for.

Waynesville sales shows 17 properties outside the margin of error. The majority — 12 out of 17 — sold for more than the revaluation amount.

However, six out of nine properties in the Beaverdam community were valued higher by county appraiser than what the actually sold for. For example, a three bedroom, three bathroom house in Beaverdam valued at $262,900 was sold for $192,500.

According to the data, assessors undervalued three out of four properties in Crabtree and all properties in the Iron Duff community.

Maggie Valley properties were appraised for more than their actual selling price in seven out of 10 instances. A three bedroom, three bathroom house in Maggie Valley that was valued at $204,800 sold for $115,000.

There are few discernable trends when comparing the accuracy of appraised value by price bracket.

Of 14 properties that were appraised at $100,000 or less, 12 of them sold for more than the revaluation assessment.

Of the 42 properties appraised between $100,000-$300,000, 14 fetched a higher selling price than the county’s value and 28 sold for less than the county’s value.

Of the 7 properties appraised between $300,000 and $500,000, four sold for more and three for less.

Only two properties sold in April and May with an appraised value of more than $500,000. One home in Maggie, revalued at $520,400 sold for less at $340,000. Another in Waynesville appraised at $541,000 sold for more at $620,000.

— By DeeAnna Haney • Contributing writer

Haywood County commissioners continue to be dogged by outcries over new property values.

Critics are openly deriding commissioners at every county meeting. They’ve circulated petitions, garnering hundreds of signatures from people who think the county has pegged their property values too high. They’ve held a few citizens meetings around the county to rant about it. Someone even took out a newspaper ad urging everyone to file an appeal over their new property values.

Critics have proffered varying conspiracy theories over revaluation, claiming that the county knowingly and artificially inflated the value of some property as a money grab to boost property tax collections.

One theory suggests the county, run by Democrats, appraised property higher in the Republican-stronghold of Bethel and Cruso to stick them with higher taxes.

The most common theory, however, is that the county is somehow in cahoots with wealthier homeowners and lowered their property values so they wouldn’t have to pay as much in taxes, while hiking the values on lower to median priced homes.

Indeed, higher-priced homes have seen their values fall. And lower- to median-priced homes held their value and went up, as a trend.

But that’s merely a reflection of sales in the market place — not a formula invented by the county’s appraisers, according to David Francis, the head of the county tax department.

“We have no control over the market,” Francis said.

No more so than the weatherman decides what the weather will be.

But, the disgruntled property owners point to the depressed economy and flagging real estate market.

SEE ALSO: How right is the reval?

“The prices are going down and down and down,” said Jonnie Cure, a watchdog for county government. “We are glutted with houses for sale. So when you have a huge supply and very low demand you obviously are going to have a reduction in the price in homes.”

But in fact, property values in Haywood County have not dropped as much as people think, according to Francis. Compared to five years ago, property on average is about the same, although some properties have gone up and others have gone down.

At stake? How much you pay in property taxes hinges on your property’s value. The county recently reassessed every home and tract of land, bringing the book value in line with actual market value. The revaluations are required periodically by the state to ensure everyone pays their fair share of property taxes.

As for the lower- to median-priced homes going up, they held their value because there was more demand for homes in that price range. Conversely, sales at the upper end stagnated, Francis said.

Francis has bowed up over the conspiracy theories that the county was sinister in giving upper-end homeowners a break.

“I was trying to do the best job I could for my fellow citizens. I grew up here, my children go to school here. It was important for me to make this right,” Francis said.

At a county commissioner meeting two weeks ago, the repeated criticism and conspiracy theories proved too much and Francis shot back after particularly insulting comments by Monroe Miller, the county’s chief critic who even has a web site dedicated to his fulltime hobby of attacking county government officials.

“Mr. Miller has insinuated I have artificially propped up the numbers on behalf of the county. That is asinine, insidious and blatantly ignorant,” Francis said. “I would never do anything like that I don’t appreciate that. I would never do anything to undermine the taxpayers of Haywood County.”

SEE ALSO: Sales keep pace with county's new values

Commissioners have grown used to the public chastising and being dogged by a dedicated group of government watchdogs. Commissioners usually keep their cool, attempting to respond to the questions and accusations from critics. But this time, Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick, like Francis, drew a line.

“I can assure you the five of us (commissioners) have done nothing intentional against anybody in this county. Any insinuation there is something different going on is completely wrong, and to be honest, I didn’t appreciate it either,” Kirkpatrick said.

The battle of words continued at the county commissioners meeting again this week, however.

“Other than righteous indignation I have not heard anyone attempt to defend Francis’ numbers,” Miller said.

If the revaluation was so off, Francis responded, then why didn’t Miller appeal his property values?

“I think my numbers are so good he didn’t even appeal his,” Francis said.

Horace Edwards, another critic sounding the alarm over property values, got vehement at the county commissioners meeting this week over a warning letter his daughter got after failing to pay her property taxes. The letter threatened foreclosure if she didn’t pay. Edwards grew increasingly upset as he read it aloud.

Edwards called it “the most asinine and crappy thing I have ever heard tell of” and threatened to “sue the hell” out of the county, then pounded the podium.

The letter in fact was a form letter sent to everyone who hasn’t paid their property taxes. Along with foreclosure, the letter warns of garnishing wages or directly tapping the person’s bank account. Almost always, the property owner sets up a payment plan.

“I am in charge of collecting taxes,” Francis replied. “I am not going to apologize for doing my job.”

Kirkpatrick diligently keeps notes during public comments, and afterwards addresses issues brought up by the audience.

“Sometimes I wonder if by responding I don’t bring on more encouragement,” Kirkpatrick said this week, but then dove in anyway. “As for revaluation we did the very best we could.”

 

Class warfare

Some who saw their property values increase will have a hard time — to put it mildly — paying more in taxes.

Eddie Cabe who lives in Canton says he is one of those people. His $67,000 home in Canton went up to $125,000. But it is a 90-year-old “box” house as he calls it, lacking proper floor joists, no insulation in the walls, and pull strings for light switches.

Kirkpatrick said those are things the appraisers couldn’t have known about Cabe’s house, and that’s what the appeal process is designed for.

“There are 55,000 parcels of property. We can’t come inside and evaluate each one, all they can do is take the sales that have taken place and look at the house from the outside and compare it to those in the neighborhood and put the best price they can on it. The best fair price,” Kirkpatrick said.

Cabe, who came to the county commissioners meeting to share his plight, said it wasn’t fair for his house to go up, while those with half million homes saw a drop in value.

“It seems like the folks that got money and the bigger nicer houses, theirs went down,” Cabe said. “I think this is the thing that people in the community are so upset with. We can debate all day along about whether real estate went up a little bit or down a little bit. But there are still people like me.”

Horace Edwards of Cruso questioned how his average three-bedroom home went up by more than 50 percent when mountainside mansions dropped in value.

“That’s not fair and equitable,” Edwards said. “I don’t belong to the upper end and I don’t get into the gated communities.”

Cure said the reval has created class warfare.

“These county commissioners have cut their nose off to spite their face. The median- to low-income people in the county are seeing their prices raised. They are the registered voters here. The higher priced homes are owned by people who don’t even live here and vote there,” Cure said.

Cure’s camp is calling on the county to throw out the revaluation and instead keep using the 2006 values on the books. Under 2006 values, upper prices homes would continue shouldering the same share of the property tax burden rather than seeing it shifted to lower and median priced properties.

Commissioner Bill Upton said tossing out the new values and keeping 2006 values on the books wouldn’t be fair. People who saw their property values fall compared to five years ago — roughly half the county — don’t want to keep paying taxes on values that are now too high.

“If we went back to 2006 we would have just as many people upset,” Upton said.

Cure agreed on that point. Those with high-dollar homes who saw their values come down would be up in arms if this reval was thrown out and the 2006 values carried on.

“Now you have a county divided,” Cure said.

Kirkpatrick said going forward with the revaluation seemed like the fair and right thing to do.

“If we had waited, some of these folks would be stuck with 2006 values that were by far higher than what their new values are. We weren’t trying to be fair to one class or another, but to as a whole be fair to everyone and go ahead and reval,” Kirkpatrick said.

 

Appeals

Property owners who disagree with their values can appeal — either an informal appeal with the county’s appraisal staff or a formal one before the quasi-judicial board of equalization and review.

The number of informal appeals this reval were nearly identical to the one in 2006, indicating dissatisfaction was about the same as it is every time the county tackles the mass appraisal, with 5,600 informal appeals compared to 5,500 last time.

But formal appeals are up by 20 percent over 2006.

Francis thinks the newspaper ad contributed to a rush of appeals just before the deadline. The day the newspaper ad came out, the county only had 600 formal appeals.

It grew to 1,800 just four days later.

That’s compared to about 1,500 appeals in the last revaluation in 2006, but nearly the same as the one before that in 2002.

Of course, some wait until the appeal deadline approaches, so the surge in the final appeal stage can’t all be chalked up to the ad. But he thinks a good number can.

“The appeals were extremely low until the advertisement hit the paper. A lot of people came in not knowing why they were appealing but they had the ad,” Francis said.

An angry crowd accused Haywood County commissioners this week of unfairly slapping some property owners with higher values while letting others off the hook in the recent countywide appraisal.

About 50 people turned out at the commissioners meeting Monday to complain that appraisers had botched up when assessing their properties. At best, they blamed commissioners for being complicit in an erroneous property revaluation — and at worst for being part of a conspiracy to target certain property owners with deliberately inflated values.

Commissioner Mark Swanger explained that commissioners don’t have a role in revaluation. Revaluation is conducted by appraisers, who examine the prevailing real estate market to arrive at new property values.

Since property values determine how much you pay in property taxes, the biggest fear from the audience was that their taxes would go up as a result of higher property values.

“There are people who don’t have extra money in their pocket to keep on donating to taxes,” said Horace Edwards of Cruso, who helped organize the turnout.

Generally real estate increases in value a little every year. But given the depressed market, many homes have stagnated in value and others have even gone down.

Yet half the property owners in the county saw an increase in value since the last countywide appraisal five years ago. And that’s what Jonnie Cure said she doesn’t understand. How could anyone’s have gone up?

“What has happened in Haywood County? I simply don’t get it. It is truly incredible,” Cure said.

Yvonne Mazet, who lives in a single-wide trailer, said she can hardly afford her taxes now, let alone now that her property values have gone up.

“I don’t feel my taxes should have gone up,” Mazet said. “I don’t think in this economic era we are using our heads very well. I think this is a very bad choice to re-evaluate our property.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said the purpose of a revaluation is not to force higher taxes on anyone.

“Our goal in this process is not to raise people’s taxes. It is to make sure the values are fair when we apply the tax rate,” Kirkpatrick said.

Edwards said it isn’t fair that more expensive homes have dropped in value, while lower or median priced ones increased. Edwards implored commissioners to use the weight of their office to “take some action and fix it.”

But the county is required to base values on comparable sales of similar property.

If expensive homes aren’t selling for as much as they used to, the county appraisers had no choice but to decrease the value of those homes to reflect selling prices the real world.

“We cannot choose to violate the law. That is not an option for us,” Swanger said.

Denny King questioned whether the appraisers accurately pegged market values, however.

“The real test for appraisals is if you put the property up for sale would they sell within a reasonable amount of time for the appraised value?” asked King, who ran for county commissioner as a Tea Party supporter last fall but lost.

Justin Hensley said he never saw an appraiser.

“No one came to our house. I don’t know how they came up with these numbers. You can’t fly over in an airplane and come up with this stuff. It is really unfair and it is totally unaccurate,” Hensley said.

Appraisers indeed visited each parcel, but they do not come inside and usually don’t get out of the car.

In Haywood County, it has been five years since the last revaluation. Counties are required to do one at least every eight. Some speakers questioned why the county didn’t wait another three years.

Jack Wadham said large numbers of people might refuse to pay their property taxes and sue the county over the revaluation. As long as the lawsuit was pending, they wouldn’t have to pay, he said, and the county would go broke waiting to collect taxes.

“That is not a threat. That is just telling you what could really happen,” Wadham said.

The crowd applauded after most of the speakers, occasionally offering up a standing ovation, but did not get unruly.

When public comment concluded, commissioners started to respond to the crowd’s concerns, but the audience got up and walked out, at first one by one, then en masse, in an obvious flout to the commissioners’ attempts to explain the revaluation.

Several in the audience told commissioners the revaluation would cost them their seats in the next election.

“It was kind of convenient that you did not do this on an election year,” said Cure. “I am sure you are hoping we forget you did it by 2012.”

Swanger repeatedly urged those who complained about their property values to appeal. The first step is to make an appointment with the county’s property appraisal office. The appraisers will share how they arrived at the property value, generally by citing the price fetched by similar property that was sold. The property owner can then explain why they believe the value is wrong.

David Francis, head of the county tax department, said the appeal process works. He shared an example from one property owner who has utility lines on their property that would hurt its selling price. The county appraiser agreed and adjusted the value accordingly.

“I know there is a lot of frustration out there. Give us a chance to sit down and explain it to you,” Francis said.

 

What is property revaluation?

In North Carolina, counties are required to conduct a mass appraisal of real estate at least every eight years. Property taxes are based on property values.

The reval is intended to level the playing field, bringing the county’s assessed value of a particular property in line with the true market value so everyone is paying a fair share come tax day.

In Haywood County, the total value of all property remained flat. If you add it all up — the value of every home, lot and tract of land — it amounts to $6.791 billion, an increase of less than one percent over last year’s total value of $6.787 billion. Roughly half the property owners saw their values go up, while half saw their values go down.

When property goes up across the board in a revaluation, the county typically lowers the tax rate to offset what would otherwise be an increase in property taxes. This time, since there was no net gain in the property tax base, the tax rate will likely remain about the same, and whether your individual taxes go up or down will likely depend on how your property values performed.

This isn’t the easiest time to be a real estate agent in Jackson and Macon counties, not with the crippled housing market and a customer base that is, in most cases, hard pressed to find the dollars to buy new homes.

Nowhere is it tougher than the upscale communities of Cashiers and Highlands, a market catering to second- and third-home owners. Here, where houses just a few years ago routinely sold in the millions, the bottom has fallen out.

Terry Potts isn’t complaining. But, as the owner of four separate real estate offices in Highlands alone, Potts perhaps is experiencing even greater pain than most agents.

“In most cases, property has been selling for about half the tax value,” Potts said of the market in Highlands, adding that what has sold are, generally, bank foreclosures.

“I think that’s why they put it off,” Potts said. “And I do think the values are going to drop a good bit — if they truly use values of (properties) that have sold.”

“It” would be the property revaluations, now scheduled to take place in both Jackson and Macon counties in 2013. Countywide appraisals were last conducted in Jackson in 2008 and Macon in 2007, at practically the peak of the housing boom in Western North Carolina.

Macon County commissioners decided to postpone its revaluation from 2011 to 2013; and Jackson County recently opted to push its back one-year from 2012 to 2013. State law mandates revaluation takes place at least every eight years; both counties had been on four-year cycles.

The issue?

 

‘True’ market value

In both counties, the tax assessors predicted difficulties with calculating true market value when little property has sold. Bobby McMahan, Jackson County’s tax assessor, recently told commissioners one township with 4,000 parcels had just three property sales in three years — hardly enough to establish a baseline.

McMahan wanted commissioners to delay Jackson County’s revaluation until 2015. This would have meant, however, that taxpayers would continue paying taxes for several additional years on what are now hyper-assessed properties. Some residents, particularly those living in southern Jackson County, cried foul — and not just over the possibility of shouldering an unfairly large tax burden, but about the overall level of services the Cashiers area receives back.

“The emotional irritation is that there is a miniscule percentage coming back to southern Jackson County and these townships,” said Phillip Rogers, who lives near Cashiers in the Hamburg Township.

“I’m personally contributing property taxes on two houses … I don’t mind paying the taxes as much as I mind not getting a return on services,” Rogers said.

But even if property values are lowered, it’s unlikely to provide residents such as Rogers tax relief, as he knows. In light of falling property values, Jackson and Macon counties would have to raise the tax rate if they want to bring in the same amount of money.

“That’s true,” agreed interim Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten of the options facing local leaders. “In order to be revenue neutral there would have to be an increase.”

Wooten estimated that staying revenue neutral in Jackson County would require a tax-rate increase of the current 28 cents per $100 valuation to the mid-30s.

The largest drop in property values, not surprisingly, is expected in the Glenville and Cashiers area — the same areas where they had risen so rapidly over the first part of the decade.

Norman West, a longtime real-estate agent, primarily works in Cullowhee, the fastest growing part of the county population-wise, according to the 2010 Census.

Even so, things aren’t good, West said, “but we tend to be a little more insulated than some other communities” because of Western Carolina University.

West said what Jackson County has yet to truly contend with is the crash of high-end developments — granted, many lots in such developments already have been through foreclosure, but he believes there are many more to come. The fallout from the Great Recession isn’t over.

“These are uncharted waters,” West said.

 

Things that roll downhill

Jack Debnam, a real-estate agent who serves as chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, acknowledged local leaders have been placed in an unenviable position.

To offset the lower property values when revaluation starts in 2013, they will either have to raise taxes or cut county services.

Commissioners might face that dilemma sooner than 2013, however. The county already faces a budget shortfall. Wooten has asked each department to cut 5 percent from their budgets in the coming fiscal year.

There is every likelihood state leaders will shift portions of the $2.4 billion budget deficit they are facing downhill to local governments. After that, there’s nowhere downhill to go — again, local leaders are left to slash services or raise taxes.

“We just don’t know where the state’s going to put us,” Debnam said.

In Macon County, Bob Holt, a Franklin resident and real-estate instructor for Southwestern Community College, said during the first quarter of this year, sale prices were running at 63 percent of the assessed value. He expects to see values drop after this evaluation.

Richard Lightner, Macon County’s tax assessor, said his office could ask commissioners to delay the revaluation again, up to 2015, but that he doesn’t plan to do that.

“I think we need to adjust to where reality is right now,” Lightner said. “The whole premise of doing a revaluation is to equalize the market values.”

Lightner said the lower- and median-priced homes are generally stable — it’s the high end, speculative markets that are down.

While some counties bring in a specialized appraisal firm to conduct the revaluation, others do it in-house with their own staff. Macon County has done theirs in-house in the past, but Jackson is contemplating bringing the reval in-house for the first time.

Lightner said Jackson is likely to “have a difficult time” if it does. Macon is well along in the revaluation process — some 30 percent of property values are done. Jackson is just starting.

Additionally, Macon has experience doing revaluations in-house; Jackson County does not.

“They’re starting from scratch right now,” Lightner said. “I wouldn’t want to do one like that.”

If Jackson commissioners insist on sticking to its target of 2013, Lightner said he expects Jackson County tax-office staff will be unable to make as many on-site evaluations as Macon County, and instead will be forced to rely more on computer-generated assessments.

Haywood County’s property revaluation was a massive undertaking: appraisers had to lay eyes on 50,000 properties, from condos to fast-food joints to farms, and judge whether they had gone up or down in value over the past five year.

Hundreds of property sales from 2009 and 2010 set the bar for new values on the county’s property rolls. But just because a similar home across town sold for $200,000, does it mean yours would also?

In the world of real estate, location is everything, whether it’s a few blocks down or the other side of the ridge.

This year, the county developed a highly-engineered method called “neighborhood delineation.”

The formula carves the county up into nearly 1,000 neighborhoods. From there, the county essentially wrote its own computer program to calculate property values, taking dozens of variables into account. Each variable takes the value up or down a notch, but is only as good as the baseline assigned to the neighborhood.

The methodology is impressive, said Randy Siske, a Realtor and president of the Haywood County Board of Realtors.

“The last time we had a revaluation, the biggest complaint from the real estate community was they were comparing apples and oranges,” Siske said. “I think they really made an effort to compare apples and apples.”

Before, the county was divided into just 17 townships. All of Maggie Valley was lumped together, or all of Bethel.

Now, clusters of just 30 or 40 similar properties make up a neighborhood.

David Francis, Haywood County tax collector, pointed to a map of Hazelwood where a conspicuous donut hole appears in the middle of one neighborhood. A condo unit along a residential street was carved out and made its own “neighborhood” rather than lumping it in with the houses around it.

“That’s how close and how drilled down this is,” Francis said.

When county’s appraisal team reached the final stage of revaluation — a drive-by of every property on the books to double check their formulas — they had identified some 700 neighborhoods. But during their final drive-bys they kept creating more and more.

One appraiser trolling the back roads of Fines Creek left in the morning to survey what she thought was one neighborhood and came back to the office with three: Betsy’s Gap, Price Town and Turkey Creek.

“They were finding out that some neighborhoods were a little broad so they broke them down further,” said Haywood County Tax Assessor Judy Ballard said.

And further and further apparently, until they had added another 250 neighborhoods by the time reval was done.

“Neighborhood delineation” was lot of work on the front end — entering not just the number of bedrooms, square footage and whether a home has a garage — but also the school district, proximity to town parks or mountain views.

Those appealing their property values may have a harder time making their case.

“I think it is going to be more difficult for property owners to get through the appeal process,” Siske said. “I’m not saying there aren’t properties out there that need to be appealed. But finding a property that is $100,000 off in value I think it is very much less likely.”

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