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Meet Richard Lightner, the eagle eye of Macon’s reval

fr lightnerRichard Lightner isn’t one for nostalgia.

For nearly 30 years, he’s been running the property reval show in Macon County. But there’s not much he misses about the old days.

When Lightner started, every parcel of property had a paper file, and that meant a lot of filing cabinets — “a roomful,” Lightner recalled. 

When appraisers headed out in the morning to trawl the county roads, they made sure to have a pencil sharpener with them. Now, appraisers have dash-mounted computer stands and a laptop. Technology came along in the nick of time, considering the number of parcels to appraise — nearly 45,000 — has doubled since the mid-‘80s.

“When my appraisers come in, whatever they did in the field that day goes up to my main frame,” Lightner said. After spending a decade in deep storage, the old paper property cards were finally shredded.

Since 2000, Lightner’s been riding the real estate roller coaster like everyone else.

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“We have just come though extreme volatility that hasn’t been seen before,” Lightner said.

This time eight years ago, on the eve of reval notices hitting the mailboxes, Lightner was bracing for a tsunami of public backlash. Homes and land had skyrocketed in the mid-2000s, and the 2007 reval was capturing the market at its peak.

Collectively, real estate values went up 69.5 percent in the four short years since the last reval in 2003. Some saw their property value double, triple, even quadruple when the 2007 reval came out.

Sticker shock — and fears over what those higher values would do to their property taxes — landed angry mobs at the appraisal office the next day, waving their property notices and demanding this ridiculous value assigned to their property be adjusted back to reality.

In the end, they were right. The property values were ridiculous. And they were indeed adjusted back to reality, just not by Lighter. The market ultimately took care of that on its own.

In hindsight, despite what property was selling for on paper during the heyday, values were based on a false premise. They didn’t rise and fall on supply-and-demand economics alone. Sure, baby boomers and retirees were smitten with the notion of a mountain dream home. But that wasn’t the whole story.

Speculators and developers were intentionally manipulating the market — even stooping to calculated bank and mortgage fraud — to reap bigger profits for themselves.

This reval, Lightner still expects to see appeals, but of a different vein than 2007. Some will undoubtedly show up wondering why their value didn’t come down more given the rock-bottom real estate prices.

But the appraisal team has been more exacting in sifting through each sale to decide if it’s a true reflection of the market or an outlier that should be ignored (see story “Quest for a perfect comp”). 

Still, people who got a hot deal on their property won’t understand why it’s not appraised as low as they bought it for. 

“I think the appeals will come from people who have bought properties at not market values — through short sales, liquidation sales, bank sales, auctions,” Lightner said.

Those distressed sales are serving a critical purpose, though.

“I think it will be a while before we get rid of the excessive inventory and vacant lots. Once the supply has cleaned itself up, the prices will start increasing,’ Lightner said.

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