Northern Virginians Greet Assessments With Disbelief

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2006

When Linda T. Nevitte opened her 2006 property assessment notice a few days ago, she knew enough about the Northern Virginia real estate market to expect a higher assessment on her 22-year-old colonial in Sterling.

But nothing could have prepared her for what she saw -- that her 2,800-square-foot home, valued at $431,300 in January 2005, was worth $603,200. That's a 40 percent increase from one year to the next, and it is likely to lead to a whopping new tax bill for Nevitte this spring.

"The whole neighborhood got a 40 percent increase," Nevitte said. "We have a neighborhood e-mail system, and it's on fire. I'm expecting them to storm the courthouse with pitchforks and knives."

Thousands of property owners across the region know how Nevitte feels. It's sticker shock season -- the time of year when property assessments jolt homeowners with the good news (more equity) and bad (higher tax bills) of rising property values.

This year, the shock is particularly deep in the outlying counties of Northern Virginia, where property owners thought they were insulated from the skyrocketing appreciation the inner suburbs have experienced most of this decade.

With an average home value increase of 28 percent, Loudoun County led the region this year. Prince William County, at 25.5 percent, was not far behind. And Loudoun appears on track to handle a record number of complaints and requests for review. It is too soon to say the same for Prince William, where notices have not hit the streets, officials there said.

"We've had a couple thousand calls," said Loudoun County Assessor Todd Kaufman. Most callers don't dispute that their new assessment represents market value, as required by Virginia law, he said. They're just shocked that the value has gone up so much.

"For the most part, people aren't upset about their assessments once we explain it to them, show them comparable sales and so on," he said.

There are exceptions. Laurie F. Neff, 34, owns a home in the Sumner Lake neighborhood of Manassas. Her 3,500 square-foot home's value rose from $535,500 to $749,600 -- a 40 percent increase. Neff said she believes that the assessment is wrong because her house has been on the market for two months -- for $689,000. All Neff said she could think when she read her notice was: "Are they on crack?"

Assessments rose briskly in the inner suburbs, too -- 20.6 percent in Fairfax County, 19.5 percent in Alexandria, to name two. But in those closer-in communities, the rate of growth has slowed a bit from last year. In Fairfax, average home values actually ticked down in the fourth quarter of 2005, although they are still about 20 percent higher than in the previous year.

What no one can say is whether that trend will continue and whether property owners can expect a more profound stabilization next year.

"As long as people moving into Arlington have the income to support mortgages of several thousand dollars a month, and as long as interest rates remain relatively low, then we'll probably continue to see appreciation in the value of real estate," said Thomas L. Rice, director of the county's Department of Real Estate Assessments.

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