When Dennis Vanek received his property appraisal notice in the mail in April, he said he found it “unbelievable.”
According to the notice, the value of his home has increased by more than $50,000 from last year, taking a 32.5 percent jump from $158,270 to $209,750.
Vanek, 60, said he’s made relatively no additions or improvements to his 30-year-old home on Kelly Crick Road and none at all in the past year. In fact, he said, it’s in need of upgrades due to long-term typical wear and tear.
“This notice is way out of the norm. It’s never been this bad,” he said. “How can they look at this home and think the value is somehow, overnight, so much higher? It’s real frustrating.”
In previous years, Vanek said, he has seen his appraisal increase within reason — such as $1,000 here and there — but feels this year “is not right.”
“I could see a few thousand dollars if there were changes, maybe, but $50,000?” he said. “Who gets that kind of increase, ever?”
Since appraisal notices were sent April 12, other homeowners have expressed complaints over receiving increased appraisals they think are out of line. Some have said they received increase notices even though their homes remain severely damaged from Hurricane Harvey.
According to the Victoria Central Appraisal District, notices are sent if the value of a property has changed by $1,000 or more from the previous year. This year, notices were sent to about 37,000 accounts.
The appraised value of a property is meant to reflect the market value of the property as of Jan. 1 this year, according to the appraisal district.
“Appraisals are essentially a snapshot taken of the condition of everything at that time,” Chief Appraiser John Haliburton said. “Everything that we do is based on the laws passed by our Legislature, which gives us the framework for the entire appraisal process.”
This year, the average home was appraised with an 8 percent increase in value, Haliburton said, though that number is likely to change after protests are complete. He said he did not have an estimate for the change in commercial property appraisals.
Another resident, Donna Odem-Nichols, said while she “understands taxes, understands the need to increase home values within reason and understands the apples to apples of appraisals,” she does not understand major property value increases.
The recently retired Victoria fire captain has a homestead and multiple rental properties and said that the appraised value of three rentals, her homestead and ranch land increased nearly $80,000, “and there’s no reason why.”
“You could live in the Taj Mahal on the inside and, if the outside looked like a shack, you wouldn’t see any increase and your taxes won’t go up,” she said. “But the minute you improve your outside, taxes will skyrocket.”
From 2017 to 2018, net taxable appraised values for both residential and commercial properties decreased 4.36 percent, according to data from the city finance department. The decrease is mainly attributed to Hurricane Harvey.
With repairs occurring after Harvey, it is reasonable that appraisals would increase this year, Haliburton said, though some residents argued that doesn’t explain increases on homes that haven’t been repaired.
About 11,500 properties in Victoria County are inspected in person each year, Haliburton said. He said there is a six-year rotation where different areas of the county are assessed from the outside, and otherwise, properties mainly are appraised based the location and area of the property as well as recent sales of similar properties.
“If in a particular area sales had gone up, the values of neighboring properties would go up,” he said. “In the same way, if sales in an area have declined, our appraisals would reflect that.”
In the case of residents who have interior damage that you can’t see from the outside, Haliburton said, it can be a challenge to appraise accurately, which is why people are able to file a protest.
“We only see the exterior of a home, so if a roof was replaced that had been damaged, we have to assume everything has been replaced,” he said. “That’s why these protests are crucial for people that feel their property was valued incorrectly to show that the inside of their home that is still damaged.”
Wednesday was the deadline for property owners to file written protests if they disagreed with the district’s projection. Haliburton said it was too early to calculate how many protests were submitted as some might arrive by mail and calculating hasn’t begun.
The appraisal district has until July 25 to deliver the final tax roll to taxing districts in Victoria County, which includes the county and the Victoria Independent School District. The tax roll will affect how those districts determine their budgets and set their tax rates.
City Councilman Jeff Bauknight, who serves on the board for the appraisal district, said, “There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason with the appraisal process.”
Bauknight said his property value increased 17.8 percent this year, and he filed a protest with the district. He said his house needs a new roof, and because the foundation has shifted, there is some cracking on the walls.
He said one property owner on his street received a notice that the value of their home increased 78 percent.
“It all seems haphazardly done,” Bauknight said. “Appraisals shouldn’t be increasing so dramatically on this random basis that they are.”
Bauknight said he has brought up his issues with the appraisal process at board meetings but is given “generic” answers, such as “it’s a lengthy, thought-out process.”
Bauknight said that basing appraisals on sales of other nearby properties falls short of being an accurate assessment of a home’s value, because, in Texas, disclosing real estate sales prices isn’t required by law, as it is in most other states.
“From what I know, Realtors in town say no one fills that information out since it’s voluntary, so I don’t think appraisers even have a good idea about what sales really are,” he said.
Furthermore, Bauknight said, he doesn’t agree with the way protests are handled. He said people present their case mainly on paper, and it is frustrating that the appraisers don’t have to explain why a property was appraised as it was.
“All I want is a fair shake. Let’s be able to see both sides of the story,” he said.
Junek Consulting, a property tax consulting business that serves nearly 20 counties including Victoria, Calhoun and Jackson, works with clients on protests.
Senior consultant Kinsey McGrew said there is “inconsistency in the level of appraisals.” Across Junek Consulting’s service area, she said, she has seen properties that are anywhere from 30 percent under-appraised to 70 percent over-appraised.
McGrew wouldn’t say how many clients Junek Consulting has helped to file protests this season but did say they have “hundreds of millions of dollars under our representation in property values.”
McGrew said “it’s a very complicated answer” to whether the appraisal district takes the company’s analysis into account during protests.
“We feel that we provide very strong arguments, but there are times that the appraisal district or review board does not take that into consideration,” she said. “It’s something that’s very concerning, because when you have evidence that reflects there should be a reduction, I don’t understand their motivation to not take evidence into account.”
Odem-Nichols said she filed protests to dispute the appraisals on the four properties she believes were appraised “without any sense.”
“I try to remain factual about what was appraised and have accurate comparisons for the protest, because if not, the board doesn’t even listen to you,” she said.
For Vanek, he offered some hope that his protest will result in his favor. He said he’s protested in the past when he has felt his appraisal has been too high, and the board usually brings down the value some, though never down to what it was.
“I think they know to raise it so much that even with lowering appraisals during protests, they still get a big increase,” he said. “It runs like a sales office more than anything else.”
Vanek said at the end of the day, he has no ill will against anyone but said there need to be better guidelines for the appraisers to follow.
“It’s all just a game,” Vanek said. “And property owners always lose.”