With a clipboard under one arm and a giant measuring spool under the other, Greg West climbed into a county-marked truck last Wednesday, cranked the engine and consulted a large Waynesville map on the seat beside him.
“Today we’re hitting Blink Bonny,” he said, planting an index finger on a traditional middle class suburb.
West would spend the next eight hours slowly cruising their neighborhood streets, eyeing each house from the driveway for tell-tale signs of its worth. If anyone’s inside, they might easily mistake him for a stalker loitering at the curb.
West is part of the team of Haywood County property appraisers tasked with assigning a new dollar value to each home, lot and tract of land — a dollar value which in turn will determine how much you pay in property taxes.
It’s been five years since the last countywide property assessment. In the past, you could count on values to go up, but it’s a different ballgame this time. The volatile real estate market has made it tougher for West and his compatriots to pin down accurate values.
With fewer homes selling, there’s less of a baseline to go by. And just because a home sold for one price six months ago doesn’t mean that’s still what it is worth today.
The county essentially wrote its own computer program to calculate property values, taking dozens of variables into account before spitting out a number. It was lot of work on the front end and involved carving the county up into 700 neighborhoods of like homes.
West’s property drive-by is now a time of reckoning as the three-year process concludes. West is laying a pair of human eyes on each house to make sure their computer-generated value is right.
The property appraisers are in the home stretch of that task, having visited nearly all the county’s 50,000 parcels from Crabtree to Cruso, from Balsam to Beaverdam, from Max Patch to Maggie.
The verdict so far?
“It’s been fairly accurate. We put quite a bit of work into it with neighborhood delineation. It gave us a pretty good start,” West said.
Testing the formula is not hard. The first order of business with each of his daily drive-bys is to visit any homes in the neighborhood that may have actually sold. He compares the computer-generated value with what it actually sold for.
In Blink Bonny, West’s first test of their formula was a 3.5-acre tract. The county had pegged its market value at $77,800. In the real world, it recently sold for $77,500. A mere $300 apart.
“Our formula fell right on the money,” said Ron McCarthy, a property appraisal consultant with RSN Appraisal assisting the county with the revaluation.
McCarthy protested any role luck played. They are just that good, he said.
To make sure, West pointed his car a couple of streets over where a home had recently sold. The computer formula put the home at $315,000 but it sold in real life for $365,000. Suddenly things weren’t looking so rosy. West set out to uncover the discrepancy.
West pored over the county’s data for the home and found the culprit. It had been given a quality grade of average — a “C” on a scale from F to A+.
But this three-story house sported stacked stone, beadboard ceilings in a wrap-around porch, octagon attic windows and other posh features. Compared to the brick ranch homes on the rest of the street, a “C” rating was too low.
He changed the quality to a B+. Using the same formula, but with the corrected data, it was now within a few thousand dollars.
West was relieved. The formula itself wasn’t wrong — just the data that was plugged into it
With several dozen variables factored into the formula, if any of them are wrong, the value it spits out will likewise be wrong. Thus West’s job during the drive-bys is mostly to ensure the data for each house is right.
Does the home have a new garage or deck? Has it fallen into disrepair? Is it junked up with a sofa on the front porch? Has the gravel driveway now been paved?
At one home, West spotted the telltale sign of a finished bonus room over the family’s garage: curtains and blinds over an upstairs window. The homeowners had added finished square feet, and that updated data triggered a higher value.
Three doors up, West’s keen eye struck again. A brick patio at the side of the house looked remarkably clean and lacked any sign of chipping and cracking you would expect for a patio dating to the home’s construction. Either they had recently invested in a pressure washer or the patio was new.
West lifted the tape measure from the back seat and climbed out. He rung the bell, and a particularly helpful home owner revealed that not only was the front patio new but there was another new patio out back. Both would boost the home’s value.
“He had a keen eye to notice that,” McCarthy said. “That’s why we do the drive-by.”
In a blind match-up between McCarthy and the computer formula, he sized up a house from the car window, glanced at the sketch of its footprint and threw out his best guess. He was just a few thousand off from the computer on a $300,000 house.
That likewise bodes well for the county’s modeling — the computer formula came up with the same value as a seasoned appraiser on the ground.
Yet there’s all sorts of tweaking that might lead West to adjust your home value during the drive-bys. If the neighborhood is uniform — homes of same quality and condition — it’s an easy day.
“If it’s in town homes on quarter-acre lots, you can just go bam, bam, bam, bam,” West said.
But there’s usually more variation than that.
New windows and a freshly shingled roof? This could earn you brownie points for your home’s condition, and a slight bump in value. Sagging gutters and mildew-stained flashing could bring you down a notch.
Views are particularly tricky. When the majority of a neighborhood has mountain views, the view factor is already built in to the baseline of home values.
If you are the lone house without a view, you will see your value reflect that.
Of, if you are the lone house with a view in a neighborhood that otherwise lacks them, plan on a requisite bump up.
Attention Haywood County property owners
Start watching your mailbox in March for a notice from the county with your new property value reflecting the current market value of your home.
In North Carolina, counties are required to reassess property values every few years. The revaluation — or “reval” — is intended to level the playing field, bringing the county’s assessed value of your property in line with the true market value so everyone is paying their fair share when paying property taxes.
Don’t assume that your taxes will go up or down just because your property values have, however. Haywood County commissioners won’t set the actual tax rate until June.