A fellow tax protester reads the Victoria Advocate while waiting at the Victoria Appraisal District offices. As you might guess, I get a kick out of watching people read their newspaper. OK, so it's a little stalkerish, but I like to see what catches people attention and makes them spend time on each page.
When we received our 2014 property tax appraisal notice, I did a double-take like a lot of Victoria County homeowners.
Our appraisal had gone up 6.6 percent. And that was on top of a 5.9 percent increase in 2013. I had never protested my appraisal before in 23 years of home ownership, but I filled out the form and mailed it back this year to the Victoria Central Appraisal District.
However, I realized quickly that my emotional reaction about our home's value probably wasn't going to get me too far before the appeals board. I started trying to look around at the value of other comparable homes, but I realized I was at an extreme disadvantage because of Texas' law keeping secret the sale price of homes and businesses.
Texas is one of a handful of states that doesn't require the disclosure of property tax sales records. In an article by bankrate.com, a University of New Mexico economics professor argues that non-disclosure leads to a variety of problems, including property-tax inequities and administrative inefficiencies.
Without sale prices disclosed, all most homeowners can do is look at the appraisal district's valuation of other homes. If you think the appraisal district is inflating the value of most of the homes, that's a catch-22. You can't win that argument because you have no evidence to the contrary.
You could hire your own appraiser or contract with a company that specializes in fighting appraisals, but that's an expense most homeowners shouldn't have to face. As I told the appraisal board members when I went before them last week, I'm willing to pay taxes on the fair market value of my home, but I honestly don't think I can sell it for the price tag the district put on it for 2014.
My best evidence for the appraisal board came from our next-door neighbors, who had sold their home in February. I felt awkward asking them for their sale price, but they had moved to Georgia and were willing to volunteer that information. They provided me a HUD statement showing they sold their home for 12.1 percent less than the 2014 appraisal of our home.
Given that our homes are almost identical in square footage, features and location, I argued to the five-member board that this was the best comparison available. The appraiser, who represented the district during the hearing, offered the sale prices of other homes in the neighborhood as a counter-argument.
I asked how he knew those or any sale prices, and he was vague with his answer. One board member even asked him to explain. Some Realtors provide information, he said. Some sellers voluntarily provide it, too.
However, I doubt many people will voluntarily offer sales information to the district. That leaves all of us in the dark about the actual value of homes or businesses. Disclosure works in the vast majority of states that require it. Putting on my hat as board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, I have to ask why Texas should be an exception to this aspect of open government. It's disappointing that previous efforts to require disclosure have failed in the Texas Legislature.
Knowing the actual sales price of homes probably wouldn't work in every taxpayers' favor. Based on my appeal, the board lowered my appraisal by 2.8 percent, leaving it 2.8 percent above 2013 and 10.5 percent above the selling price of our neighbors' home.
I think the adjusted appraisal is still more than I can sell the house for, but perhaps we'll discover that figure is too low if we actually have all of the data to review. No system is perfect, but I'll always chose more information over less.
What about you? Would you want your property sale price to be public record?
Update: I found another interesting blog on the subject. Click here to read "Another story on the huge inequities of our property tax system."
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